J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pawn Shop Chronicles: Don’t Hock What You Can’t Afford to Lose

How did we get so pathetically starved for entertainment as a society that we made reality TV stars out of pawn shop dudes?  At least this slightly macabre anthology film puts hock shops back in their properly sleazy place.  Everyone doing business at the General Lee Pawn Shop will be getting the shaft, but it will be fate and human nature doing the dirty work in Wayne Kramer’s Pawn Shop Chronicles (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Alton and his crony Johnson sit about the store grunting and guffawing, pausing to deal with the occasional pawn.  Each transaction will cause big time trouble and regret for the General Lee’s walk-ins, like Vernon the meth head, who hocks his shotgun right before meeting up with his white supremacist buddies, Raw Dog and Randy, to hold-up their dealer.  Of course, they are rather disappointed in his short-sightedness.

On paper, “The Shotgun” sounds like a cheap bit of hicksploitation, but it features some of the wickedest dialogue in the film, which Paul Walker and Kevin Rankin chew on with proper relish.  Gleefully embracing cartoonish violence and a bizarre redneck brand of tolerance, PSC arguably puts its strongest foot forward first.

“The Ring” also has its exploitation merits, but viewers should be warned it is the most explicit and disturbing installment of the film. Making amends for Crash, PSC’s pretentious evil twin, Matt Dillon plays a newlywed who chances into the General Lee, only to discover his presumably late first wife’s custom ring in the display case.  Following the chain of wrongful ownership takes him into the lair of Johnny Shaw, the latest serial killer to be played by Elijah Wood.

Despite a sly riff on the crossroads legend, “The Medallion” is PSC’s weakest link.  Seriously, a little bit of Brendan Fraser shticking up the joint as Ricky Baldoski, the low rent Elvis impersonator, goes a long, long way.  Eventually, strands of the previous stories will transect this Faustian tale, but first viewers must sit through an extended gag involving the town’s rival barbershops that feels like it runs longer than The Winds of War.

Many have long awaited the film that features Wood, Lukas Haas, and DJ Qualls, but since they never appear here in the same scene together, we still cannot definitely say they are not one and the same person.  Vincent D’Onofrio and Chi McBride are mildly amusing in the General Lee framing segments, but it is Walker, Rankin, and Dillon who are the film’s overachievers.

Much like a chaotic pawn shop, the inspired and the stupid comfortably sit side-by-side in PSC.  To his credit, Kramer (in a radical departure from his excellent more-or-less feature debut, The Cooler) helms the madness with considerable energy and absolutely no shame.  On balance, b-movie connoisseurs will enjoy checking it out when it releases on VOD this Friday (7/12).  It also opens theatrically in New York at the AMC Empire and in Colorado at the AMC Westminster Promenade.

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