Published May 19, 2020Marcus Mizelle's Chameleon wastes no time in establishing that this film takes place in a seedy, dangerous world. It is clear from the languorous, eerie opening credit sequence that this is a world of foolish greed and crime, with violence always lurking right beneath the surface. Chameleon embodies the best and worst elements of noirish B-movies, equal parts compelling and unbelievable, filled with clichéd dialogue and morally conflicted characters. A title card at the beginning of the film quotes 17th century scholar Thomas Fuller: "A fool's paradise is a wise man's hell," urging us to spend the rest of the runtime trying to figure out who is a wise man and who is a fool.
Patrick (Joel Hogan), our fresh-faced ex-con protagonist, teeters between wisdom and foolishness throughout, wrestling with his conscience as he teams up with his old cellmate Dolph (Donald Prabatah) to make money by kidnapping rich men's wives and demanding ransom money. Their scheme raises a lot of questions — who is stupid enough to trust a guy who claims he is having an affair with your wife? Why didn't any of these people contact the police? It's baffling that they don't get caught immediately. It is never clear whether the film is critical of the protagonists' arrogance and sloppiness, or whether it aligns with Dolph's assertion that these people "deserve it," by virtue of being rich and gullible.
One of the film's most compelling elements is the way key scenes are presented out of order and replayed multiple times from different perspectives. While its narrative twists and turns are not exactly unpredictable, their nonlinear presentation adds an interesting layer of subtlety and elegance. Mizelle has previously worked as an electrician and lighting technician in television and film, and these skills are put to good use here. Every frame is crisp, clear and vivid, demonstrating Mizelle's unique aesthetic approach to L.A. neo-noir. Scenes shot in Big Bear are especially lovely, drawing out the menace in the landscape's looming mountains, deep green trees and Patrick's oddly angular wood cabin.
While visually appealing, Chameleon occasionally feels like a low-budget student film, with its sound becoming muffled during outdoor scenes and some oddly stilted dialogue ("You're having an affair with my wife and now I'm sharing a bottle with you…"). Even when it becomes clear that Patrick is falling for one of his targets, undercover cop Rebecca (Alicia Leigh Willis), their connection feels forced and disingenuous. Perhaps this is meant to draw attention to the fact that almost everything Patrick says is a lie, to call into question his ability to genuinely connect with another person — but when Rebecca misleads her colleagues and sides with Patrick, it raises questions as to why she cares about him in the first place. Did they ever have a real conversation in the few days they knew each other? Is he truly worth risking her entire career over?
Chameleon is mostly a deliciously sleazy crime thriller, albeit with a slightly puzzling plot, but its true weakness lies in its lack of substantial engagement with the moral questions it raises. It is genuinely disturbing to watch Dolph get shot by the police while his white partner-in-crime escapes law enforcement and gets to live his (admittedly isolated) life in a Mexican beachside resort, and equally disturbing are the numerous scenes where women are abducted, drugged and brutalized after agreeing to leave town with Patrick after only knowing him for a few days. Chameleon doesn't quite live up to the best of what crime films and films noirs have to offer — namely a critical interrogation of the ugliness portrayed onscreen. (Forte Pictures)