Kate Frazier has an abusive husband, so she runs away to find a new life in another city. She meets a man named Frank who, although quietly enigmatic, seems very nice. Trouble is, Frank is a suicidal hitman whose next victim just might be himself. And yes, Kate really knows how to pick 'em.
In Michael Keaton's 2009 directorial debut THE MERRY GENTLEMAN (Breaking Glass Pictures), Kelly Macdonald (TRAINSPOTTING, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN) is appealing as Kate, who's quite likable herself and makes friends easily in her new office job. When someone in her building is killed by a sniper (guess who), the investigating cop, Detective Dave Murcheson (Tom Bastounes), is smitten with Kate himself after questioning her about a man she saw teetering on the ledge of the building across the way.
The man was our own suicidal Frank, who fell back out of danger when she screamed. Grateful, Frank manages to meet Kate (they have a cute Christmas tree interlude) and they become friends. It's the old story of two unlikely people reaching out to each other in a time of need. And Kate's need grows even more urgent when her husband Michael (Bobby Cannavale, ANT MAN, 10 ITEMS OR LESS) tracks her down and shows up in her apartment, claiming to have been "born again."
Since we don't know if Michael's really a changed man or not, and we really kind of doubt it--as does Kate--this is where we think, "Hmm...good time for Kate to have a new best friend who's a professional hitman." I wouldn't dream of giving away what happens next, but that's pretty much the set-up, and it's an intriguing one.
Keaton, of course, plays one of those palatable "movie" hitmen who, unlike their counterparts in real life who are nothing more or less than the absolute scum of the earth, we can actually like and identify with. This nattily-dressed "gentleman" is even so thoughtful that he stops to set right a nativity figure that's fallen down.
Frank has developed a sour stomach for the job and his heart just isn't in it anymore. So we pretty much buy that he can actually have a sweetly platonic relationship with an emotionally needy woman, especially since this relationship is plausibly simple and avoids getting overly cute. (With the possible exception of the Christmas tree interlude.)
Michael Keaton, who, of course, we know and love from BATMAN, BEETLEJUICE, NIGHT SHIFT, and MR. MOM, among other things, plays Frank with remarkable restraint and doesn't veer too far into false sentiment to make him more likable. His scenes with Kelly Macdonald also never try too hard to push our "aww" buttons.
In fact, THE MERRY GENTLEMAN is so low-key and restrained overall that it barely tries to evoke much in the way of strong feeling from us at all. It pretty much just shows us stuff happening in a very matter-of-fact way as we watch helplessly.
Kate and Frank's oddball mutual attraction, Detective Murcheson's sudden infatuation with Kate and clumsy attempts to court her, the complications that ensue when Michael reappears--it all plays itself out with much the same sort of narrative detachment as THE BICYCLE THIEF.
As a director, Keaton lets it all unfold with a slowburn pace, which suits his non-sensationalistic handling of this material well. He has a very neat visual style that I found quite pleasing, with the same taste and restraint that he applies to the story itself.
If you're looking for gritty cop-noir or tense action, this isn't going to ring your chimes. More than anything, THE MERRY GENTLEMAN is a character study, albeit a decidedly unusual one, and goes for subtle emotional responses rather than exploiting the subject matter for suspense or thrills. As such, I found this thoughtful, melancholy mood piece well worth devoting some time to.
Starting December 6, THE MERRY GENTLEMAN will be available on the following platforms: iTunes, Amazon Instant, Vudu, Google Play, and On Demand through local Cable/Satellite Providers
See it on Amazon.com Instant Video