Film Review: Dark Meridian

A dirty cop and a gangster's son are caught in the crossfire between two warring New Orleans crime families in this twisty neo-noir thriller that highlights the ugly side of the Crescent City.
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Told largely in flashback, Dark Meridian opens with the defiant Detective Spencer Soleno (James Moss Black) trapped and badly wounded, then fills in the complicated story of how he found himself in such dire straits. He's been on the payroll of local crime lord Oren Malek (Ronald M. Lamarque) for as long as he can remember; it's a dirty gig, but at least Marek is an old-school gangster, the kind who believes in things like loyalty, respect and honor. He's accompanied by Tevi (Dave Davis), Oren's college-educated son, a bright kid who talks tough but still needs Soleno to watch his back, especially now that war has broken out with the rival Garvan family.

The first casualties are three men found slaughtered in the warehouse Soleno was sent to keep an eye on; the corpses include one of Tevi's brothers. Their deaths set off a chain reaction of violence that starts with Patrick Fox (Billy Slaughter, also one of the film's executive producers), a hapless car dealer who takes a series of brutal beatings for continuing to insist he's not the guy the Marek flunkies think he is. Tevi has his doubts about the whole situation, and he and Soleno plunge into the Crescent City's underbelly in an effort to untangle the web of alliances, power plays and betrayals that unfold over the course of a long, dark and bloody night.

A longtime New Orleans resident who relocated to Los Angeles when film work dried up in Louisiana, writer-director Rankin Hickman assiduously avoids the genteel, gracefully faded locations that attract many filmmakers to the city. Dark Meridian is a gloomy, deglamorized tour of cinderblock warehouses, rundown houses and apartments, dirty streets and charm-free stretches of neglected residential blight. Even a brief foray into the French Quarter makes the legendary good-times district look like a series of "before" pictures in an urban-renewal PowerPoint presentation: Kudos to cinematographer Jerry M. Jacob for capturing the morning-after face of a legendarily handsome city. Though this is Hickman's first directing credit, he and his wife, production designer Christina Eunji Kim, brought two decades of experience to bear on the project, which no doubt helps account for its remarkable polish on a $250,000 budget.

Credit also to the strong cast; while most of the supporting roles are written in broad strokes, the actors—many of them familiar faces, if not names—don't default to the stock character. Suspenseful and briskly paced, Dark Meridian is a small movie that makes the most of its assets and doesn't overstay its welcome, qualities that give it an edge in an overcrowded genre.

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