Neo-noir contains clever ideas and solid performances

What’s out there beyond the cold, confining prison walls for recently paroled Patrick? After trying his hand washing dishes at a restaurant, he realizes that the ex-con stain won’t wash off. Besides, that menial job doesn’t make use of his best talent—gaining the confidence of beautiful women. And Dolph, Patrick’s protector on the inside, has an idea what to do with that talent. The con is on.

Joel Hogan and Donald Prabatah play partners in crime.

The two men devise a crude, but brilliant plan. Patrick will lure the young wives of wealthy, older men into affairs. Then, once Patrick’s seductive hooks are firmly planted, Dolph will kidnap them and ransom the wives back to their rich husbands. The magic of the con is in Patrick, engaging the help of a husband to help him gain the safe return of the woman they both love.

At one point, while talking with one of the distraught husbands, Patrick says that the ransom demand exceeds his resources. He needs help that only the other man in this shaky love triangle can provide.

Hogan as Patrick smoothly convinces a parole board to release him.

Writer/director Marcus Mizelle’s “Chameleon” is a well-made crime thriller that benefits from an attractive cast. And the script contains elements of a classic noir. Mizelle, who also acts as the co-director of photography here, is schooled in some of the genre’s best, citing Jules Dassin’s 1955 film “Rififi” as one of his influences.

But I was somewhat reminded of François Truffaut’s “Shoot the Piano Player,” as Mizelle’s story progressed. While not nearly as effective as that influential film, “Chameleon” does aptly deal with the nuanced consequences of a successful crime. Because if the con works once, they have to give it go a second time, then a third, and so on.

Mizelle’s Casanova, the pretty-boy Aussie Patrick (Joel Hogan), initially feels trapped by an obligation to the intimidating Dolph (Donald Prabatah). But it’s the gravity of the criminal life that pulls him in. For a while, he willingly accepts his part in the enterprise, but Patrick knows down deep inside he will never escape.

What troubled me when reading the description of “Chameleon” was the use in promotional materials of the phrase “superficial trophy wives.” There’s a certain amount of male chauvinism at play in the film. It is, after all, the basis of the con.

Alicia Leigh Willis plays a mysterious mark.

The fact that Patrick is so adept at collecting beautiful women might frustrate some viewers. A montage showing his exploits is subtle enough to sell it, I think. Mizelle might be trying to say more about the shallowness of the men masquerading as husbands than about the women who take part in the charade.

And Mizelle smartly pivots away from that disturbing aspect of the story by introducing a more savvy possible victim named Rebecca (Alicia Leigh Willis). Without spoiling one of the film’s key plot points, Mizelle will avoid some criticism by relying on the mysterious Rebecca character. And it helps that Willis is good in the role.

“Chameleon” is a low-budget production that doesn’t exceed its limitations. There are action sequences that move at a slower pace than typical blockbusters. This is not a picture to watch for exciting, shoot-outs, and fistfights. Mizelle covers the aspects of the crime and its effect on the players.

A quality production with some smart ideas, “Chameleon” is a solid directing effort for cinematographer Marcus Mizelle.

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