Judge Brett Cullum is amazed somebody from Arkansas could cook up a really good crime drama that never resorts to telling a character to "squeal like a pig." Go Razorbacks!
No good deed goes unpunished.
Good Chemistry is one of those "so far under the radar" films it's easy to miss, but it entertains and thrills very well. The project is a nice surprise. It does what all good independent features do—shocks us with how inventive a movie can be without any budget or star power behind it. Lead actor and writer Lance Lee Davis (FAQS) and his director and best friend Kristopher Hardy (veteran of music videos) have enough tricks up their sleeves to get away with a solid crime drama that looks incredible. The story was shot on location during the summer of 2004 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The whole thing was a labor of love for hometown boy Davis, an actor who is seeking a way to make a name for himself after a surprisingly successful modeling career in Asia. It took over three years to get a distribution deal, and the film debuted on Warner Cable's pay-per-view service. After a lot of hustling from the actor, now Good Chemistry finally winds its way to DVD courtesy of Westlake Entertainment. This one's worth a look, and promises interesting things ahead from the people who put it together.
The story revolves around a high school chemistry teacher (Davis) kidnapped by desperate criminals who want to use the educator's skills and knowledge to make synthetic heroin. We have a nice guy suddenly thrust in to a situation where he struggles with "doing the right thing" when everyone around him operates solely from greed and malice. He begins to fall for one of his captors, a pretty and charming criminal (Brooke Anderson, Lost) who seduces him with little more than a kiss and promise of a life more exciting than the one he leads. To up the game, the criminals also hold hostage his money hungry ex-wife (Dawn Balkin, Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School), threatening him with her life if he doesn't make the illegal product. Through several twists and turns, we see the situation grow more desperate as emissaries from the Bolivian mafia threaten to arrive on the scene to collect half a million dollars worth of narcotics.
The cast makes the film an easy watch, because they do a hell of a lot in a short span to convince the audience to come along with them. Lance Lee Davis plays the lead, and he is also the screenwriter of the piece. Lance has the right qualities to carry off a well-meaning chemistry teacher who has to grapple with a bad situation that will require desperate measures. He's believable and gives an assured performance. It's hard not to imagine Davis as a young budding Bruce Campbell with his dark good looks and squared-off jaw. Also impressive are his female costars, including Brooke Anderson, who gives off a young Jodie Foster vibe as the criminal who seems not so bad by the end. Dawn Balkin gets the thankless part of the crazy ex-wife, but she handles her twists and turns solidly. Lawrence Turner (Nine Dead) and Mike Thomas (The White River Kid) both do frighteningly realistic redneck roughness all too well.
On the technical end of things, Good Chemistry rises above its "made on a dime" origins. The filmmakers make good use of their Arkansas farm location, and everything feels appropriately claustrophobic as the cat and mouse game between the teacher and the thugs plays out. Good Chemistry has strong visuals, and Kristopher Hardy along with Gabe Pfeiffer (any relation to Michelle?) show off how to get an independent film to look like it cost a hell of a lot more than it did. Amazingly enough, the entire thing was shot on super 16mm Kodak film, but ends up looking almost as clear as HD digital. There were some very skilled setups and compositions utilized to make the film look amazing.
The only drawback comes from a rushed feeling to the relationship between the teacher and his female kidnapper. In the final act we're supposed to buy a pretty steep sacrifice on his part for her, and it seems somewhat forced for the convenience of the story rather than what the character would do organically. That turn isn't enough to completely derail the film, but it does stand out as the only misstep in an otherwise intriguing crime drama. The movie succeeds in sucking the viewer in and providing enough thrills along the way to forgive the elliptical storytelling in the last moments. The conclusion makes sense, but it felt like it needed just one extra step to seal the deal. Kudos to the script for not taking the easy way out, but it is a difficult sell.
Westlake Entertainment provides Good Chemistry with a nice DVD package complete with two short features from the cast and crew. The transfer looks fine, with the moody dark palette replicated very well for DVD. There are no authoring problems, and the widescreen transfer is crisp and clean. Soundtrack options include a full surround treatment as well as an equally clear stereo version. Extras include two short films made by Lance Lee Davis and Kristopher Hardy featuring some of the same cast from the main movie. "Jack Eliot" and "Midnight Smile" offer viewers an idea of the asthetic the filmmakers work in, and they complement Good Chemistry very well.
Good Chemistry showcases promising filmmakers who should only get better from a strong starting point. It has a unique setup, a solid cast, and an admirable look to it. The film works itself into a stylish frenzy that is interesting and aware every step of the way. You can't help but admire the fact it was produced by an actor who wrote the story and helped to fund the production with generous tips from catering and bartending gigs around Los Angeles. This is true independent cinema, and the results are well worth the blood and tears invested in it. I'll be interested to see where Lance Lee Davis and Kristopher Hardy dare to go next. Good Chemistry cooks up enough thrills and suspense to make it well worth seeking out.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Westlake Entertainment
• Jack Eliot Short Feature
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