Producers: Roger Goff and Mark B. David   Director: Nicolas Harvard   Screenplay: John Glosser, Joseph Russo, Chris LaMont and Ben Kabialis   Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Kate Bosworth, Jeffrey Nordling, Gabriela Quezada, Charlie Weber, Kaylee Bryant, Noel G, Bourke Floyd, Madeleine Guilbot, George Akram, Livia Treviño, Emily Rose David, Tom Wright and Ving Rhames   Distributor: Screen Media

Grade: C

It’s the old “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” gambit that drives Nicolas Harvard’s feature directorial debut after a long career as an assistant director.  “The Locksmith” boasts a good cast but a weak script, winding up as a would-be modern film noir weighed down by genre clichés and some absurdities of its own.

Ryan Phillippe stars as putative hero Miller Graham, who’s introduced breaking into a safe with his nervous partner Kevin Reyes (George Akram) while crooked cop Ian Zwick (Jeffrey Nordling), the mastermind behind the heist, waits outside.  When the thieves unwittingly set off an alarm, Zwick kills Kevin to protect himself from suspicion and takes Miller into custody, warning him to take the rap if he doesn’t want his wife Beth (Kate Bosworth) and their baby daughter to be targeted. Zwick becomes a hero for supposedly foiling the crime he actually instigated.

Ten years later Miller’s released from prison; he’s greeted by his old mentor Frank (Ving Rhames), who’s gone straight and offers him a job in his locksmith shop.  Miller’s goal is to reconnect his Beth, now his ex, and daughter Lindsay (Madeleine Guilbot), and hopefully make a new life with them. 

But of course he’s not allowed to ignore the past.  Slimy Zwick, now a lieutenant, visits to say that he’s retiring, and introduces his corrupt detectives Perez and Jones (Noel G and Bourke Floyd), who rough Miller up as a reminder to keep his mouth shut.  Another visitor is April (Gabriela Quezada), Kevin’s sister, now a call girl who begs him to help her steal half a million from her cruel boss, real estate mogul and poker game impresario Fields (Charlie Weber), so she can escape and start a new life.  Of course Fields’s security detail is composed of Zwick and his crooked cops.

As if this weren’t complicated enough, it just so happens that Beth is a police detective serving under Zwick, who before he leaves the force transfers her to Vice as a partner with Perez and Jones; they, as he menacingly says, will “watch her back.”

The further convolutions of the plot won’t be disclosed here, but it’s not unfair to note that while in most old pulp novels the protagonist is rather dim, Miller Graham is a positive lunkhead, making choices that invariably turn out badly for himself and those he’s close to, although it does turn out that his decision to teach Lindsay how to pick a lock proves useful when the kid is kidnapped in the closing reel.  A major revelation about one of the characters toward the close comes out of left field, but not in an especially convincing fashion.  And when poor Phillippe must utter to that character a line so overused nowadays that it should henceforth be forbidden to every scriptwriter—“You don’t have to do this!”—you might be unable to stifle a guffaw.

The movie does exhibit a heaping helping of chutzpah toward the close, moreover, when it includes a few scenes from a classic of the genre—Orson Welles’s “Touch of Evil,” also about crooked cops—on a television screen.  Deliberately drawing a comparison that’s bound to be invidious is a choice as bad as the ones Miller so frustratingly makes.

Still, as silly as the plot gets, Phillippe, always a good trooper, treats it with a seriousness it hardly deserves.  When Frank says to Miller at one point, “I’m trying to understand how you could get yourself involved in something like this,” you might imagine that it’s Rhames making the remark to Phillippe.  Yet the same might be said to Rhames, or Bosworth; their roles are no less thankless, but both strain to make their characters credible.  Further down the cast list, Nordling is an odious villain, and Weber no less a contemptible one.  Quezada, on the other hand, struggles in a role that makes little sense.  But Guilbot is a pleasant kid who holds her own against the adults.  On the technical side, Kassandra DeAngelis’ production design and Jeff Bierman’s cinematography give the New Mexico-shot images a properly noirish feel, and Lori Ball edits things down to a tolerable ninety minutes, though even at that some sequences lag.  Marlena Sheetz’s score isn’t as intrusive as those in many of these B-movies.

Still, the best one can say of “The Locksmith” is that it isn’t as bad as it might have been.