The Assassin’s Code

David Armstrong is a director who cut his teeth on dozens of projects but is best known as the cinematographer on the “Saw” series. He has one previous feature film to his credit, the crime thriller “Pawn” which looks like it has a very impressive cast. “The Assassin’s Code” is also a low budget crime thriller and Mr. Armstrong knows how to get as much out of a budget as is possible. The production value on this film is impressive, given that the shoot was only twenty days and it all takes place in Cleveland. Without showing Jacob’s Field or The Rock and Roll Hall of fame, the director has managed to make this mid-western crime thriller feel like it really is a part of the city. There are clever uses of some b-roll of the city streets, a nice drone shot to open the film, (big surprise it is a shot swooping in over water and focusing on the down town area.), and some very nice locations that can pass for city hall offices, concert halls and local mansions.

Michael Connolly is  young detective, eager to make his own mark and overcome the disgraced reputation of his police officer father, a man killed in what looks like a drug deal he was involved in. Connolly is married to a concert cellist, who wants to help him live and earn the respect of others, but he shuts her out when he feels it is necessary, which puts a strain on their relationship. Michael gets his chance to make a good impression as a detective when the man tasked with following leads on a theft of department drug evidence, disappears. The themes of the movie concern living up to expectations and living by a code of conduct that many others will not understand. Like most cops in movies, Connolly, played by Justin Chatwin, is his own worst enemy. He rubs all the other cops the wrong way, in part because of his family legacy, but also because he is the mouthy sort of wise-ass he has probably seen in a thousand cop movies and TV shows. None of his colleagues want him working with them, and he makes it clear that he has very little regard for their abilities.

Chatwin is young, photogenic and can carry a scene when he needs to. He does sometimes over play the intensity moments but he is truly excellent when tossing off a insult under his breath or as he is walking away from a tormentor or a suspect. There are three other standout performances in the film that help balance out some inconsistency from out lead character. Rich Grosso plays a mid-level mafioso in the Cleveland Crime syndicate. Carmen Puccinaldi owns a Tropical fish store that serves as a front for various criminal activities.  Grosso as Puccinaldi has a several nice scenes in a bar, meeting with criminals who owe him money or who work at his direction. Armstrong gets the most out of the tropical fish store as a backdrop to two murders, done in the store, by the light from the tanks. The blue illumination makes the killing feel otherworldly in just about the most mundane spot you can imagine. Grosso’s smile and delivery of the line explaining the plastic sheeting on the ground is just right to carry the moment. Later he has two scenes on a park bench and some very funny lines, including the facetious question, “Why ruin this body with muscles?” He is not a comic character but he does have many of the grim punchlines in the movie.

Radio personality/actor Mark Thompson, from the Mark and Brian Show and the Mark and Lynda Podcast, gets to sink his acting teeth into a very meaty role. Armstrong was the Cinematographer on Thompson’s self penned starring project “2:13”. Armstrong cast him on the basis of the friendship they formed there and it pays off in this film. Thompson plays Chatwin’s Captain, an old friend of his fathers and part of the police legacy that Michael Connolly is trying to live up to.  Thompson is a traditional authority figure as Captain Jack O’Brien. In a scene in a bar, the young cop and the somewhat mechanical Captain, review progress of the case but also discuss the past. Thompson has a nice way of speaking in an ingratiating manner to the youngster. His best scene however is played out against the seeming mastermind of criminal activity in Cleveland, a local philanthropist with ties to politicians and other cops. Two tough guys engaging in a pissing contest is not a new element of a crime drama, but it needs to be executed well. Thompson plays off of veteran character actor Robin Thomas perfectly. He silently gets in the last word while dusting off the other mans shoulder, as if he is removing a chip there instead of a bit of dog hair.

The third excellent performance belongs to well known movie tough guy Peter Stormare. He plays a hulking menace of an enforcer for the mob. As the assassin of the title, he is cruel and efficient and does not make any mistakes. His mysterious Kurt Schlychter is a one man tornado of death. Dissipating big wigs and minions with equal calm, the character is a part that Stormare could play in his sleep, except he gets one great scene that makes the movie feel very different. In much the way Robert Shaw’s monologue in “Jaws” dominates that movie without any action or histrionics, Stormare gets a similar chance. His character crashes a solo rehearsal of Connolly’s wife in a small concert hall we’d seen earlier. At first we expect his presence to menace her or end in her death as a way of fueling the detectives fire. Instead, we get a great character moment as the assassin tells a tale about his grandfather in Germany and  Mrs. Connolly plays some Bach on her cello. Director Armstrong uses the classical music cue to switch the tone of the encounter and the circling camera work makes this moment much more cinematic than some of the flatter interactions we have seen between other characters. The killer reveals that he too has a legacy to live up to. It is not any prettier than that of the detective but it does make a cardboard character into a real human being for the remainder of the film.

Edward Lee Cornett based the script on stories he heard while growing up in his Cleveland neighborhood . Together with script supervisor turned screenwriter Valerie Grant, they create a story that contains well worn tropes of police corruption. The innocent young cop is in over his head, both with the criminals he is chasing, and the unseen police corruption that is his biggest threat. The story is repetitive at times, featuring as it does the assassination of one character after another as Connolly gets closer to the truth. Each death does seem a little different because while all but one person is shot, they are all shown differently. A shot to the face at point blank range, execution style in the back of the head in a car, and simple flashes of light in a window, each gives Armstrong a chance to make his low budget film into something a bit more special.

Video game composer Austin Wintory creates a standard thriller soundtrack, but does add several moments that turn the film into a more modern noir rather than an 80s crime show. He borrows heavily from two great post modern noir films; “Chinatown” and “L.A. Confidential”. The influence of Jerry Goldsmith (my favorite film composer) is obvious. There is just enough personality in the score to set a mood but not so many themes that the film becomes a cliche.

“The Assassin’s Code” will not be on anybody’s top ten list at the end of the year, but it could be if that list is made up of undersized movies that shake off their budgets and manage to work because of the film makers skill. “Assassin’s Code ” makes a well worn story succeed though good performances by the supporting cast, a solid score that makes the film bigger than it really is, and an excellent use of location to add production value. It is playing in a few theaters but it will be easier to catch streaming at :

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-assassins-code/id1357902739

The Experience

I saw “The Assassin’s Code” at a private screening at Harmony Gold on Sunset Blvd. last night. I have been a long time fan of Mark Thompson as a radio host and podcaster, so I sprang for tickets when they had their premier screening her in the L.A. Area.

The theater is the location of the old “Preview House”, where I went a couple of times as an audience member for advertising analysis. We were usually shown a TV episode for an unsold pilot, but the real purpose was to test ads that were run during commercial breaks. The theater no longer has the handsets that allowed the audience members to record their feelings as the film clips screened, but the configuration is still the same, I think it has been slightly refurbished.

We got to the theater when we were advised to and there was already a line up the block.

 

My wife has some mobility issues and the event organizers and staff at the Harmony Gold could not have been nicer. They let us in through the back so we could avoid having to climb a set of stairs and she was able to be seated without being in anyone’s way as people were checking in. We chose some seats off to stage left (right from the audience’s point of view) so people would not have to walk awkwardly across her every time they got out of their seats. On the way down the hallway, we walked  right by David Armstrong, who greeted us with a very friendly hello as he passed us.

There were several lighted poster marquees and they had the version of the poster that featured Mark looking over Justin Chatwin’s shoulder.

After the show there was a beer and wine reception, and everyone was getting a wristband so they could be served later. A backdrop was at one end of the lobby and people were posing for pictures and being interviewed for a video production.

It did take a while for everyone to get checked in and be seated, and there were several rows reserved for the cast and crew of the film who were in attendance last night.

The director greeted us before the movie began and he introduced Mark Thompson who thanked everyone for coming out to support the film. They reminded everyone that there would be a presentation after the film and David Armstrong introduced several cast members and key personnel from the film.

After the movie, most of the cast, and the director, co-producer and screenwriters came up on stage to share a little of their experience. Mark conducted the interviews like he must have done a thousand times in his radio days. He had a little bit of research, a couple of questions and a fun attitude with a willingness to tell his own stories along the way.

Rich Grosso, Edward Lee Cornett, Elizabeth Anweis, William Baker, Mark Thompson, David Armstrong, Justin Chatwin, Yancy Butler, Robin Thomas, and Valerie Grant

Mark made an effort to have questions for each of the guests and he told his own stories as well. If he could embarrass someone he was happy to do so. Elizabeth Anweis seemed the most reticent to share so of course she became a target for Mark’s sarcasm. Toward the end there were a few questions, but most of those who spoke up really wanted to offer their assessment of the film or to thank everybody for making the event so much fun for them. Me, I stayed quiet and thus avoided Mark’s scorn.

We are not drinkers and Mother’s Day plans were set for the morning, so we left after the Q and A, and missed getting a picture with any of the cast or Mark’s family, although his Daughter in law Eleni and I did trip over each other as I escorted my wife to the elevator. Sorry Eleni, Hope you don’t bruise easy.

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