Donald Prabatah and Acelina Kuchukova in Chameleon (Photo: Forte Pictures)

★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Marcus Mizelle
STARS Joel Hogan, Alicia Willis

It’s a sterling example of style over substance in Chameleon, a twisty crime drama whose narrative beats can’t keep pace with its visual splendor.

For a low-budget indie, Chameleon looks like a million bucks. Kinston, NC, native Marcus Mizelle, whose credits on the film include writer, director, producer and editor, also serves as co-cinematographer with Victoria Stein, and many of their shot selections are breathtaking. From neo-noir shadows to burnished vistas, the movie is consistently captivating in its ocular offerings, and the moody score by Jeremy Nathan Tisser works in tandem with the camerawork to create a carefully sustained mood of foreboding.

The story centers on Patrick (Joel Hogan), a minor-league criminal freshly paroled from prison and hoping to start a new and clean life in Los Angeles. Not so fast, counters Dolph (Donald Prabatah), his former cellmate who’s now also out of the slammer. Declaring that the real prison is being trapped in a backbreaking life of hard work and minimum wage, Dolph convinces a reluctant Patrick to return to the criminal way.

Their plan is to target wealthy men with trophy wives — Patrick will seduce the woman, Dolph will kidnap her, and then Patrick will contact the husband, confessing that he’s been having an affair with his spouse but panicked because the anonymous kidnapper left him a note demanding an exorbitant amount that only a rich husband could afford to pay. Their scheme goes well until Patrick falls for their latest mark: Rebecca (Alicia Willis), a blonde who’s married to a tech bigwig (Jeff Prater).

Chameleon _still2
Joel Hogan and Jeff Prater in Chameleon (Photo: Forte Pictures)

The kidnapping ruse provides an interesting hook for the film, but Mizelle doesn’t linger too long on the particulars of any of the snatches since it’s hard to imagine this plan working more than once or twice (the film shows a steady stream of victims, with all of the husbands remarkably cordial toward the man who’s been bonking their wives). There’s a neat plot twist that occurs roughly two-thirds through the picture, but rather than elevating the film to another plateau, it instead results in a slow limp toward an underwhelming ending.

Hogan ably carries the film in the central role, even if it’s hard to believe his sleepy demeanor would make him irresistible to every woman he meets. He and Willis are fine individually, although more establishing scenes of them together are needed to believe in the strong connection that develops between their characters. More convincing are the interludes involving Patrick and Dolph, with the former’s uneasiness playing well against the latter’s assertiveness. Theirs is a relationship seen in countless past movies — the more cautious and level-headed guy having to contend with his temperamental friend’s increasingly unpredictable behavior (think, for starters, of Mean Streets and Rounders) — and Hogan and Prabatah nicely capture the yin and yang of their odd-couple pairing.

(Chameleon is currently playing the festival circuit and will expand in 2020.)

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