Judge Joel Pearce says this British gangster flick is as unsatisfying as fish without chips.
"I think it's the biggest miscarriage of justice ever happened in the history of Great Britain, really. I mean, we done a couple of things, we slapped a couple of people around, we looked after people. People treated us with respect and we treated them with respect, you know?"—Eddie Richardson
A jumbled curiosity of a film, Charlie isn't sure whether it wants to be a hard-boiled gangster thriller, a thoughtful biography, or a legal drama. Unfortunately, it does none of these things well, and it should be skipped in favor of any of the hundreds of better movies about organized crime.
Facts of the Case
Charlie tells the story of real-life British gangster Charlie Richardson (Luke Goss, Blade II), who was in charge of one of the biggest gangs in England, and whose business connections in South Africa afforded him a dangerous level of power in both countries. The film jumps back and forth between his rise to power and the trial that led to his 25-year sentence. Parts of the story are told through his own words, while parts are depictions of the testimony against him.
In truth, Charlie wasn't a terrible idea. It has a very strong lead performance by Luke Goss, who deftly switches gears from being a smooth businessman to ruthless thug. These shifts in his personality explain why he is both a compelling and charismatic leader while also getting involved in so many criminal enterprises. Without a doubt, Charlie Richardson is an interesting enough person to have a film made about.
This, however, is the wrong film. In trying to capture the complexity of his character, the filmmakers decided to use an unusually wide range of storytelling techniques. Much of the film is narrated by Richardson himself (well, Goss as Richardson). In these segments, he tries to justify his own actions and experiences. We see him as a child, brought up in terrible conditions. Clearly, we are meant to understand through these segments why he became the person he did in that Psych 101 way that movies have of explaining away evil. In these segments, we rarely see the negative and unpleasant side of the business. Even more glossy are interview segments with the actors playing his closest friends and colleagues. They are shot as though this were a documentary, but we don't hear from the actual men involved. We only hear from the actors playing them, which is almost as distracting as Billy Crystal showing up in This is Spinal Tap. Are we really supposed to believe that Richardson was this nice? Are these testimonies pulled from real interviews? Is it all just speculation?
The uglier parts of Richardson's life emerge from the witnesses' testimony at his trial. The cornerstone of Richardson's illegal dealings was a torture team that kept things running smoothly. Most of the witnesses explain in graphic detail the pain and suffering they endured at the hands of the Richardson gang. The trial segments are meant to expose the seedier side of Richardson's life, but they are equally problematic in terms of narrative integrity. As the trial continues, it becomes quite clear that the whole thing was cooked. Did Richardson really oversee such terrible beatings? Perhaps. But these testimonies were designed only to put him behind bars, not to uncover the truth. It is as though we are meant to understand Richardson's life by seeing both extremes. We see the lies about how great he was on one side, then the lies about how evil he was on the other.
This complex way of telling the story may have worked well if Charlie had been better constructed. I have no problem with non-linear storytelling, but it needs to be assembled in a way that makes sense. Here, the various segments are just tossed together, with transitions every ten minutes so that the audience doesn't get bored. It gradually becomes more chronological, but characters come and go at a frightening pace, which ultimately gets a bit confusing. Most of the actors give dull performances that leave them in the shadow of Richardson and do little to distinguish them from one another.
The biggest problem, though, is that we've seen this all before. We've been seeing the seedy underbelly of the gangster world since The Godfather came out almost 35 years ago. Showing mobsters and their families as complex human/monster blends has been a mainstay of the genre since then, and nothing in Charlie is uncharacteristically vicious. All it really serves to show is that British mobsters are just the same as any other.
The transfer on the disc is solid, with a fine looking image in the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. There are no print or transfer flaws visible, and the transfer handles the muted scenes in Britain and the vibrant scenes in South Africa equally well. The audio isn't quite as dazzling. The Dolby 5.1 track lacks the punch it should have, although the dialogue is generally clear. The mix isn't as subtle as it should be, and never quite blends together satisfactorily.
There are no extras on the disc.
The British Gangster genre has been in a slump lately, and Charlie doesn't do anything to turn that around. This kind of story has been told countless times before, and often better. Fans of the genre may want to give it a rent to see Luke Goss chew up the scenery, but that's really the only reason to track this one down.
I'm sure Charlie Richardson's story is an interesting one. This movie is bad enough, however, that I will let the Richardson gang handle these disappointing portrayals in whatever way they see fit.
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