One sign of a terrific actor is that he can hold you even when he’s not doing anything. Pierce Brosnan is like that. I wouldn’t call him a minimalist, though he never wastes a word or a movement; he has the precision of an expensive watch. Yet as he’s gotten older (he’s now 70, with silver hair), his inner quality of elegant puckish cutthroat gravitas has only grown stronger. You’re hooked by him when he’s not doing anything in part because he projects the unwavering confidence that you will be.
That makes him the ideal actor to play a seen-it-all hit man — who also happens to be a highly civilized gourmet cook — in Phillip Noyce’s “Fast Charlie,” a Deep South crime drama that may be the twelfth movie this year to center on a hit man. But the new hit-man movies, like David Fincher’s “The Killer” and Richard Linklater’s “Hit Man,” aren’t conventional thrillers. They’re character studies with existential underpinnings (which brings them full circle back to the first and still greatest example of the form, “The Day of the Jackal”).
“Fast Charlie” is a modest genre movie, and that’s what’s good about it. The veteran director Phillip Noyce brings it in at 90 minutes (a rare feat these days), and he stages it as a neatly unfolding tick-tock journey, so that each plot swivel arrives in time to take you somewhere. And Brosnan keeps the film grounded, always convincing you there’s something at stake. He plays Charlie Swift, who has spent 32 years working for Stan (played by the late James Caan in his final role), a now-ancient mobster who is also his friend. Charlie lives in an unassuming residential neighborhood of Biloxi, Miss., in a home that’s tastefully furnished with antiques. He’s a Marine veteran who likes to unwind by making Italian food (he was stationed in Italy), and he’s the key member of Stan’s ball-busting crew.
Brosnan speaks with an accent that’s a fusion of his own silvery brogue and a gruff drawl. It’s not an accent that’s going to win any awards for authenticity, yet it’s sonorous and expressive; it works. It makes Charlie, in his way, an original character — a gentleman shitkicker. Adapted from Victor Gischler’s novel “Gun Monkeys” (the script is by Richard Wenk), “Fast Charlie” is about what happens when Charlie’s rather comfortable life as a Mob killer and fixer gets torn apart overnight. A rival gangster, Beggar Mercado (Gbenda Akinnagbe), compromised by one of Sam’s goons, decides to whack Sam and his entire squad, and he just about succeeds; he’s got the men and the muscle. But it’s Charlie, under his debonair surface, who’s got the ice-pick attitude, along with the will to survive.
Charlie is a bit like the James Caan character in “Thief,” with a dream that sustains him: He wants to buy a fixer-upper in Tuscany and retire there. What’s stopping him? He doesn’t want to do it alone. Enter Marcie Kramer (Morena Baccarin), the ex-wife of the loser who tried to rat Beggar out. (He got what was coming to him.) She has tried to stay above the fray (literally, in an isolated house on stilts), and when Charlie seeks her out, the best thing about their connection is what a casual slow burn it is. Baccarin, who’s from Rio de Janeiro, has a dreamy-eyed perkiness that syncs up with Brosnan’s reticent valor. When the two head to New Orleans to find the evidence Marcie’s ex was hiding, they say a lot without saying all that much.
Noyce, the director of such disparate movies as “Dead Calm,” “Salt,” and “Above Suspicion,” has always been a fastidious filmmaker, and in an age of made-for-streaming action comedy that seems to spill over the sides of its own wretched excess, you’re grateful for his old-school craftsmanship, which now looks like rigor. In “Fast Charlie,” he streamlines the action without hyping it, makes poetic use of helicopter establishing shots, and stages a scene worthy of the first “Bourne” film in which Charlie hides out from an assassin in a hotel laundry chute, squeezing against its sides to keep from sliding down, a task that becomes appreciably more difficult when the assassin, a relentless ogre known as the Freak (Christopher Matthew Cook), fires his gun up the chute and hits Charlie in the thigh.
The skill of that scene, like much of the rest of the film, is all in the timing. There is skill, as well, in the quirks and the details, like Charlie and Stan arguing over whether Charlie put cilantro in the chicken, or the “Semper Fi” that unites Charlie and the club bouncer (David Chattam) who shows up to help him at just the right moment, or the fact that Marcie is an aspiring (and ardent) taxidermist. “Fast Charlie” is minor, but Noyce, to the end, knows just what he’s doing. That used to seem like less of a novelty.