What would you get if you pawned “Pawn Shop Chronicles”? Probably no more than a used VHS copy of “Pulp Fiction,” the pic that director Wayne Kramer and screenwriter Adam Minarovich’s triptych of comic-violent tall tales slavishly lusts after, right down to its cast of indie stalwarts and former A-listers hoping for a career second wind. Certainly a more energetic affair than Kramer’s last outing, the dreary “Crash” knockoff “Crossing Over,” if nowhere near as authentically lurid and gonzo as his 2006 Paul Walker thriller “Running Scared,” the pic’s three tales of Southern discomfort consist mostly of bad things happening to dumb people, with heavy doses of misogyny and torture and minimal pleasure, save for a couple of bright performances that fitfully enliven the dross. Day-and-date Anchor Bay title will disappear quickly from its perfunctory 15-city theatrical release, but should ride its name cast to healthier VOD biz.
The pawn shop of the title sits tucked under a highway somewhere in the Deep South (filming was done in Louisiana), watched over by laconic proprietors Vincent D’Onofrio and Chi McBride, who while away the time with torrents of sub-Tarantino wordplay about everything from the ethnic identity of Santa Claus to the palatability of Tater Tots. Headed with comicbook-art title cards a la the old “Tales From the Crypt” TV series, each story begins with a visit from a client seeking to hock something for quick cash, then follows said characters as they proceed toward some inevitably thwarted goal. The template here, as for so many anthology series and movies, are the tales of the American short-story master William Sydney Porter, aka O. Henry, with their taut, fable-like constructions and switchblade twists of fate, though these “Chronicles” rarely rise to the level of even good bathroom reading.
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First seg, entitled “The Shotgun,” concerns the efforts of three strung-out tweekers (played by Walker, Kevin Rankin and Lukas Haas) to rob a local drug dealer (Norman Reedus) — a plan that hits a bump when Haas pawns his gun for gas money. The main attraction here is Walker (also credited as one of pic’s producers), who’s hilariously shifty and paranoid and clearly having a grand time undermining his typecast alpha-male image; he should do comedy more often, albeit with better material.
Next comes “The Ring,” in which a newlywed (Matt Dillon) ditches his bride (Rachelle Lefevre) in the pawn shop parking lot after stumbling on a clue to the whereabouts of his first wife, who mysteriously disappeared six years earlier. That quest ultimately leads him to a smiling psycho (Elijah Wood, once again in “Maniac” mode) and a farmhouse that gives new meaning to the expression “women are cattle.”
Finally, Brendan Fraser takes center stage as a low-rent Elvis impersonator who meets Old Scratch at the proverbial crossroads (in this case, the Crossroads Bar), but not before first finding himself at the center of a bizarre turf war between two rival small-town barbers. By far the gentlest and most playful of the tales, it also gets a lot of mileage from the deft Fraser, who’s always had a knack for playing outsized comic characters, and here gives this would-be King his husky-voiced, hip-swerving all. Which, in the bigger picture of “Pawn Shop Chronicles,” still isn’t quite enough.
Visually, Kramer and cinematographer James Whitaker try to keep things interesting with a constantly moving camera and, at one point in each episode, a completely unmotivated shift from the standard 1.85 aspect ratio to CinemaScope and back again. Like most of the justly forgotten “Pulp” derivatives that surfaced in the immediate wake of Tarantino’s smash, from “2 Days in the Valley” to “Suicide Kings,” Kramer’s pic serves mostly as an object lesson in just how difficult it is to is to create a stylized genre reality, populate it with a dozen or more memorable characters, and make it seem as if their actions are bound up in some larger cosmic fate.