LOS ANGELES - Commercials director Fredrik Bond makes a promising feature debut with "Charlie Countryman" a fanciful crime-drama / romance that gratifyingly eschews strict genre classification.
Introduced in voiceover by an unseen Narrator (John Hurt), Charlie Countryman (Shia LaBeouf) is a bit of a lost soul and the death of his mother Katie (Melissa Leo) leaves him completely adrift. After she passes, he sees her in a vision and asks her for guidance - she tells him to go visit Bucharest. Lacking any other direction in his life, Charlie boards a Chicago flight headed for Romania and meets Victor (Ion Caramitru), a Romanian taxi driver on his way home to visit his daughter.
Casual conversation reveals a shared love for the hapless Chicago Cubs baseball team, but their newfound friendship is cut short when Victor peacefully passes away on the flight and Charlie experiences another vision: Victor telling him to deliver a gift that he was carrying to his daughter Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood). Charlie agrees, tracking her down at the airport when he arrives and consoling her as best he can before offering to assist with the disposition of her father's body.
Later at the opera house where he watches her play cello in the orchestra, Charlie meets Gabi's menacing ex-husband Nigel (Mads Mikkelsen), who has unfinished business with Victor over a missing videocassette that he now plans to settle with Gabi, but she turns him away. Later that night on a circuitous wander around the city, Charlie's convinced he's falling in love with Gabi, but she remains aloof and mysterious about her relationship with Nigel.
By coincidence, Charlie learns more about Nigel and Gabi from Darko (Til Schweiger), another gangster and associate of Nigel's who runs customer shakedowns at a local nightclub. Darko's looking for the same videotape that Nigel is seeking, plunging Charlie into a standoff between Gabi and the two heavies, even as the young couple is discovering the first glimmers of romance. Charlie will clearly need to elevate his game if he's going to help extract Gabi from her perilous situation - if in fact she even wants to be rescued.
Screenwriter Matt Drake reportedly based the script on his personal experiences in Romania, but introduces some fanciful elements to the gritty narrative, such as Charlie's ability to converse with the recently deceased, as well as the somewhat problematic device of the Narrator's voiceover. Many of the omniscient observations made by the unidentified character can be directly deduced from the film's plot and theme, making his rather ponderous pronouncements about love and fate seem almost ridiculously grandiose. Overall, however, Drake manages a taut balance between action and romance that's consistently engaging.
With a scruffy demeanor and wide-eyed enthusiasm, LaBeouf projects a degree of emotional recklessness that's both disarming and disconcerting to watch. Woods blends so capably into the role, with her distinctly European bearing and Romanian-accented speech, that she easily conceals her American origins. As her violent and unpredictable ex, Mikkelsen is chillingly proficient and although she appears only briefly, Leo registers strongly.
Bond effectively incorporates the script's more eccentric elements while keeping them grounded in the principal narrative. Production values are top-shelf overall, supported by a propulsive score and strategically incorporated special effects.
"Charlie Countryman," a Millennium Entertainment release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "some brutal violence, language throughout, sexuality/nudity, and drug use." Running time: 103 minutes.