A master con man and his merry band of collaborators witness the nasty end of political intrigue in the entertaining if overall low-key actioner "Chameleon."

A master con man and his merry band of collaborators witness the nasty end of political intrigue in the entertaining if overall low-key actioner “Chameleon,” from vet helmer Junji Sakamoto (actioner “KT,” controversial pedophile expose “Children of the Dark”). Lead perf by lithe thesp Tatsuya Fujiwara (“Battle Royale,” “Death Note”) is charming, but not quite strong enough to command. Pic paled into the B.O. background during July domestic release and hopes of additional entries to this wannabe franchise were immediately dashed. Asian-themed fests will still want to look, and international ancillary fanboys will wait in vain for sequels.

Pretitle sequence introduces Goro (Fujiwara) as a shadowy figure of the Tokyo night who asks street fortuneteller Keiko (Asami Mizukawa) for help and then mysteriously disappears.

After opening titles, Goro is the emcee at a Japanese wedding that’s ambushed by a yakuza demanding debt repayment from the groom. The marital shakedown is quickly revealed to be a scam of “The Sting”-like proportions, masterminded by the central protag. En route to the getaway car, Goro and his gang witness a kidnapping, which Goro records on his cell phone camera.

The 30-year-old script, originally written by Shoichi Maruyama for deceased Japanese thesp Yusaku Matsuda (Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain,” 1983’s “Family Game”), takes a while to find its sense of direction. The gang scams and romance between Keiko and the elusive Goro start to take shape, while the details of the kidnapping of a real-estate developer willing to inform on a government minister (Ittoku Kishibe) unfurl almost casually.

At the one-hour mark, Goro’s buddy Kosuke (Shun Shioya) threatens to blow the whistle, and the pic suddenly explodes into action with two high-kicking fight scenes bookending a strong if unsensational car chase. Slow burn betrays the script’s age, but for the patient viewer, pic offers entertaining rewards.

Tight direction by Sakamoto keeps the yarn ticking along. Helmer also takes pleasure in allowing the thesps time to develop their characters, though some still lack definition even by film’s end.

Fujiwara manages to establish an authoritative air of intrigue about a man of mystery who easily could have become a two-dimensional character. Pity he won’t get a chance to follow up, as his repeated idiosyncratic mannerisms like, gargling after smoking and delivering pointed catchphrases (“That’s what I’d like to say, but I’m too pathetic”), will go to waste.

Tech credits are pro, but refreshing lack of CG effects reinforces the film’s old-fashioned vibe.

Chameleon

Japan

Production

A Toei presentation of a Chameleon Film Partners, Central Arts production. (International sales: Toei Co., Tokyo.) Produced by Mitsuru Kurosawa, Kazuhito Amano, Tatsuya Kunimatsu, Yukiko Shii. Executive producer, Shigeyuki Endo. Directed by Junji Sakamoto. Screenplay, Shoichi Maruyama.

Crew

Camera (color), Norimichi Kasamatsu; editor, Shinichi Fushima; music, Goro Yasukawa; production designer, Ryo Sugimoto; sound (Dolby Digital), Junichi Shima. Reviewed at Pusan Film Festival (Midnight Passion), Oct. 5, 2008. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Tatsuya Fujiwara, Asami Mizukawa, Shun Shioya, Kosuke Toyohara, Masato Hagiwara, Ittoku Kishibe.
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