Fast Charlie begins near its end, as Charlie (Pierce Brosnan) is held at gunpoint in an isolated junkyard, himself unarmed and literally with his pants down. As he reveals in voiceover, this is not quite how he had pictured his final moments to be – but having lived a violent life as a gangland fixer, he could hardly have dared expect a more dignified end.
A flashback reveals the suave ex-Marine unhappily teamed up with the much younger Blade (Brennan Keel Cook) to carry out a hit in his home town of Biloxi, Mississippi as a favour to ambitious up-and-comer Beggar Mercado (Gbenga Akinnagbe) from the neighbouring New Orleans gang. It should be a simple job, but reckless, none-too-smart Blade overdoes things, leaving their target Rollo Kramer not just dead but without a head – so Charlie turns to Rollo’s ex-wife Marcie (Morena Baccarin) to see if there is another way by which the corpse might be identified. There is, and the matter is quickly resolved – but then things get complicated…
“Too late,” Marcie will later tell Charlie, in words that encapsulate the general theme of belatedness that runs through Phillip Noyce’s film. Charlie’s surname is Swift, which, along with his quick-wittedness, may explain the title, but now in his autumn years and contemplating retirement, this ‘old timer’ in his ‘grandpa car’ is a little slow on his feet – certainly compared to the much younger rival hitman Lloyd ‘the Freak’ Mercury (Christopher Matthew Cook) who relentlessly dogs his every step. Charlie is on borrowed time, both because those in his line of work tend to die young, and because we know right from the beginning where his adventures are going to end.
Meanwhile, there are other signs of belatedness around Charlie. His beloved boss Stan Mullen is slowly succumbing to dementia and no longer capable of running things – and the fact that Stan is played by James Caan, in his swansong rôle before his death in July 2022, now only underlines the melancholic sense of an ending. Marcie too, though much younger than Charlie, is introduced as an ex (that most belated of statuses), has missed her shot at becoming a mother and, in a detail that comes with obvious symbolism, is a taxidermist who has devoted her life to preserving, even bringing ‘dignity’ to, the already dead. If Charlie is interested in Marcie, this is very much a sunset romance for him, perhaps indeed coming too late.
Though adapted by Richard Wenk from Victor Gischler’s novel Gun Monkeys (2001), Fast Charlie is haunted as much by the spirit of writer Elmore Leonard. For it is a wry criminal caper, full of small-time crooks, mindless thugs and criss-crossing narratives, all tempered by smart dialogue, a dark streak of humour and the real charm of its two leads. This is an affectionate exercise in genre – and if, in its borrowing of well-worn movie tropes, it all seems a little inauthentic and ersatz (not unlike the Southern accent that Brosnan adopts, or the breasts that an ageing character played by Sharon Gless has purchased for herself), it lets us know that it is aware of its own artifice. After all, even as it presents itself as a mafia flick, and features multiple scenes of Italian food being prepared, eaten and discussed, none of these characters is actually Italian, and Charlie’s dream of retiring to Tuscany represents not so much a return to the old country as a new beginning for the (self-)made man.
strap: Phillip Noyce’s charming if melancholic Southern gangland caper grants an old mob fixer a new lease of love and life
© Anton Bitel