Pawn – Blu-ray
Starz / Anchor Bay
Release Date: Apr 23, 2013
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Rated: R
Reviewed by Mark Smith

Review Score: 3.5 of 5

Pawn is one of those fantastic surprises that I would probably have never had the privilege to watch had it not shown up on my desk for review. The first thing that caught my eye was the string of noteworthy names above the title to go along with the collage of familiar faces down the side of the Blu-ray cover. If the story was half as good as the cast this movie was going to rock…and it did!

Pawn is a relatively low-budget feature with a tightly compacted script that only spans a handful of locations. The pacing is fast, the action intense, and you really have to pay attention to keep up with the story that is dissected into nearly a dozen snippets from multiple timelines and perspectives then scrambled and cut back together into a non-linear 90 minutes not unlike Pulp Fiction. There are so many underlying levels of plot and intrigue that are slowly revealed and layered upon what you already know, and only in the end will you realize the careful crafting that went into this exciting drama.

Things start off rather tense as a cop (Forest Whitaker) finishes a smoke and enters a diner just prior to midnight. The patrons and even the staff are all acting nervous, and there is an awkward exchange with the diner’s owner (Stephan Lang) who is being secretly held at gunpoint by “The Brit”, the leader of a group of men who have been sent in to rob the diner’s safe. Of course the first thing that goes through my mind is “how much money could this greasy spoon actually have?” and the director answers with an “earlier that day” scene where “The Brit” is being hired to rob the diner by another cop. It turns out the diner is owned by a Russian mob boss and there is a hard drive in the safe that incriminates dozens of dirty cops. They need that drive before the boss can turn it over to the FBI. In exchange they can keep the cash, wallets and watches.

The title is in direct reference to the character of Nick (Sean Faris) who we meet just as he is being released from jail and reunited with his expecting girlfriend. After reassuring her that he will “stay out of trouble” he ends up at the diner to meet his brother. Nick is in the bathroom when the robbers crash the diner and manages to call 911, which leads us to believe that is why Forest Whitaker’s character is there, but that is a twist all its own. Once Nick is discovered in the bathroom “The Brit” makes him the spokesman of the bunch, and with his existing criminal record, the cops outside, led by their police negotiator (Common) all suspect him as the mastermind.

The movie intentionally leaves out critical information during the first act, only to reveal it slowly and more effectively in the second and third. I’m usually pretty good about figuring out these types of movies but this one had me guessing all the way till the end. The performances are exceptionally good from Lang who plays a rather feeble elderly diner owner to Ray Liotta, whose chiseled features had my skin crawling during his entire “hostage” sequence with Nick’s girlfriend. Whitaker’s short time on the screen was perfection, but the standout performance has to go to Chiklis whose unmistakable features and proper English accent make him one of the most engaging bad guys since Hans Gruber in Die Hard. I’ve only seen a few episodes of The Shield, but I am a big fan of Vegas where Chiklis plays another stylish Chicago mob boss running a casino in Nevada. He is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors.

There isn’t much to say about the video quality in Pawn. There is nothing in the movie that is meant to look awesome, so this digital HD presentation merely captures the gritty realism of its few locations which are mainly dingy apartments, dark offices, a diner cast in a fluorescent glow, and the nighttime sky of the surrounding streets flashing with red and blue police lights. While the scenery isn’t dazzling the clarity and texture detail is spectacular, especially in the numerous close-ups of the actors’ faces. Contrast is sharp and there are no obvious artifacts or banding, even in the darker scenes.

The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless audio mix is underwhelming at best. There are only a few instances of effective 3D use of the soundscape and most of the presentation is kept to the front and center to go along with this dialogue-heavy film. There is a good underlying score that enhances the narrative and the brief moments of suspense, tension, and action, but it knows when to fade away so we don’t miss the riveting script.

There isn’t much for extras. There is no digital copy but you do get a standard DVD in the combo pack. The one and only extra is a 23-minute Behind the Scenes documentary that goes into modest detail on the script, cast, and performances. It’s pretty light material that can easily be skipped, which may or may not affect your decision to purchase or rent.

Back before sitcoms and reality TV, Pawn could easily have been one of those made-for-TV movies (remember when they did those?), but at least premium cable is getting some good stuff and Starz has created a compelling drama full of tension and surprises with enough twists and turns you may have to watch twice just to pick up on it all. I’m not sure if it’s worth a full-price purchase, especially with the limited extras, but if you can find Pawn on sale I’d definitely add this unique hostage drama to your permanent library.