Though there’s no sign he plans to retire soon — he has several further projects in the can — producer-star Ron Perlman’s vehicle “Asher” is the kind of movie that often serves as an actor’s onscreen bow-out these days. Like recent “The Old Man and the Gun” or imminent “The Mule,” it provides “Hellboy” star Perlman a way to both stay in the game and acknowledge “aging out” as a veteran criminal whose next job may be his last.
That blend of action genre content and character study is a comfortable mix for Perlman, even if “Asher” doesn’t quite have the stuff to be truly memorable on either count. This leisurely neo-noir, directed by Michael Caton-Jones from a first produced script by Jay Zaretsky, opens today on 10 U.S. screens simultaneous with digital-formats release.
Asher (Perlman) is a dignified silver-haired gent living a quiet, solitary existence in his New York loft apartment. Once in a while he goes out, often picking up an umbrella at the corner bodega, rain or shine — his trick as a professional hitman is to trigger the sprinkler system in buildings, flushing out his latest mark.
He gets his assignments from middleman Abram (Ned Eisenberg), who gets them in turn from boss Avi (Richard Dreyfuss). He tells neither after he nearly bungles one job, passing out on the doorstep of an intended victim due to bloodstream complications from some old bullet fragments. The upside is that this mishap introduces him to the good Samaritan next door, ballet teacher Sophie (Famke Janssen), with whom he commences a slow courtship.
Though Asher prefers to work alone, he lets Avi pressure him into a team mission with former protégé Uziel (Peter Facinelli), a retaliatory hit on a rival crime boss. That, too, is nearly derailed by our protagonist’s health woes, though again he manages to keep his frailty secret. Afterward, however, it becomes evident that he has worse trouble — someone on his own side apparently wants him dead. Eventually he’s forced to go on the lam, taking Sophie along once it’s clear she’s been targeted as well.
Though it has some effective bursts of violence, “Asher” is not an action thriller so much as a crime drama, one filled with the familiar autumnal melancholy of “Donnie Brasco” and similar exercises in which an aging mob soldier realizes there’s no peaceful retirement at road’s end. Caton-Jones (“This Boy’s Life,” “Rob Roy,” “The Jackal”) is a solid craftsman who can lend redeeming style to inferior material (see “Basic Instinct 2”) while making good use of his actors’ resources. This movie benefits in particular from the warm, handsome, nocturnal look DP Denis Crossan gives the Brooklyn and Syracuse locations. Other tech/design contributions are also accomplished, the sole exception being one unconvincing CG explosion effect.
There are well-cast subsidiary roles that add color, notably Jacqueline Bisset’s as Sophie’s mother, whom senile dementia has turned into a foul-mouthed, suspicious stranger. But the whole romance has a slightly forced feel to it, despite Janssen’s efforts in a thankless role. And while Perlman brings his usual credible mix of imposing physicality and rueful humor to the lead, Zaretsky’s script doesn’t quite give Asher or the entire story the depth aimed for. (Perhaps because we spend so little time with him by comparison, Dreyfuss’ boss feels more vividly etched in just a couple scenes — though the actor himself deserves most of that credit.)
The end result is an entertaining, polished, if ultimately minor endeavor whose inspiration level falls a mite short to meet the potential for something greater suggested by such a cast. (Nor does it help that the film ends on a cliffhanger note that feels a bit cheap.) Nonetheless, there’s a certain satisfaction in its combined assurance and familiarity, reminiscent of the old-school gangster B movies that it’s distantly descended from.