"Pawn" might be a straight-to-DVD thriller, but it boasts a surprisingly strong cast! Among a slew of recognizable faces, you've got Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, Common, Stephen Lang, Ray Liotta, Sean Faris, Nikki Reed, Max Beesley, Marton Csokas, and Jessica Szohr. But I was primarily intrigued by Michael Chiklis taking the film's most prominent role and serving as a producer. I'm a big fan of Chiklis, his Vic Mackey on "The Shield" will go down in my book as one of TV's greatest anti-heroes. And after viewing "Pawn," a relatively low-budget affair, I could see what might have appealed to him. Setting up the classic heist-gone-wrong scenario, the film starts off as a stand-off between cops and robbers with a bounty of hostages caught in between. But director David A. Armstrong and screenwriter Jerome Anthony White clearly have other things on their mind. They want "Pawn" to be a twisty and clever enterprise that leaves the audience guessing about every character's real motivations. As the film progresses, flashbacks start to reveal that things might not be what they seem in this gritty, if flawed, movie.
Chiklis plays a British thug (Why British? Who knows?) who leads a team on a late night heist on a popular midtown diner. Despite the lateness of the hour, the restaurant is packed with an assortment of innocent (and not-so-innocent) victims. When a local cop (Whitaker) enters the premises, the situation goes from bad to worse. But who, as they say, is zooming who? Who on the police force can be trusted? What was the goal of targeting the diner? And can anyone come out of this unscathed? I won't reveal anything relevant to the film's surprises other than to say that Faris quickly becomes the centerpiece of the hostage situation. As an ex-con caught up in the intrigue, is his presence at the diner merely a coincidence? That's a central question that haunts many of the principle characters as "Pawn" progresses.
While "Pawn" positions itself as a twisty and clever thriller, it really isn't as smart as I would have liked. The metaphor of the chess piece is revealed late in the picture, but it's not particularly convincing. As major secrets are uncovered, the connections grew increasingly tenuous or unbelievable. Structured as a narrative puzzle, I felt that I had seen this device used to better effect in other films. The screenplay has a lot of great ideas, but many are left unexplored or go relatively nowhere. I especially liked how one character (Reed) was held and then inexplicably released. She had seen many of the major players involved in a grand conspiracy at that point, but they let her go like it was no big deal. This is also one of those movies that relies on the plot device that there is such organized corruption in the police force and this equates to having murder-for-hire thugs on the payroll. All in all, though, "Pawn" is entertaining. I recommend watching it for the actors (it is better served through rental, though). About 3 1/2 stars, I'll round up for this being a solid enough straight-to-DVD endeavor. KGHarris, 4/13.