Falling somewhere between lesser Mamet and the modern-day faux-noir of Mel Gibson's "Payback", "Chameleon" concerns a ragtag family of long-con artists: Four not-so-young men, pushing 30 and their luck, who live and work with three retired members of a stage troupe who approach criminality as a return to acting. These callous youths, fresh from their latest wedding con and flush with the success only a paper bag containing \4 million can bring, inadvertently witness a politically motivated kidnapping and become targets themselves. Their leader Goro (Tatsuya Fujiwara, playing a rougher variation on his usual smarter-than-the-next-guy screen persona) immediately grasps the danger they're in and seemingly takes care of it, but when things start to unravel and people start dying, he's pushed further than anyone expects.
Fujiwara's astonishing success at the box office is no fluke. He has star charisma, and sells his intelligence and rage as well as any young actor in Japan. From "Battle Royale" to "Death Note" to "Kaiji", Fujiwara plays the smartest or most intense guy in the room--sometimes both. Like Gibson in "Payback" (a guilty pleasure if ever there was one), Fujiwara can elevate b-movie material just by being there. When his Goro was described in the film as a former Yakuza bodyguard and small-time hood suffering from depression, I guffawed a bit—Fujiwara a bodyguard? But he sold himself well in the film’s fight scenes, which closer resembled later-period Donnie Yen brawls than wirework fantasy or Hollywood one-punch-and-done. Not to say Fujiwara has anything like Yen’s fluidity, but the fights felt messy, painful, and more real than many. As for the tough-guy stuff, Fujiwara conveys it with his eyes. After the tired theatricality of nonstop screaming in such “tough” youth films as “Rookies”, it’s refreshing to see an actor who can play inner burn. Unfortunately “Chameleon” doesn’t establish colorful villains for Fujiwara to rail against, which also weakens it. Give him the J-film equivalent of James Coburn, William Devane and Gregg Henry to overcome and you might have something. Even lesser action/con film “Kurosagi”, a close cousin to “Chameleon”, had Tsutomu Yamazaki and Naoto Takenaka carrying the weight. Put Fujiwara in that film instead of pretty boy Tomohisa Yamashita and you’d have something.
"Chameleon" rewards the viewer with several genuinely good action sequences, but somehow fails to click as a whole. It's a near miss. This is no fault of the cast's, but very clearly a structural and pacing problem. Crime revenge dramas, especially with a con man angle, should grab you and whisk you along at a feverish pace; even slower-paced films of the sort such as "The Spanish Prisoner" have a sort of mesmerism that holds the viewer rapt. "Chameleon" has this only in bits: the wedding con is a slick sequence introducing the players one by one, Goro's meeting with the kidnappers is appropriately edgy, and the film's final 15 minutes are riveting. The problem is the rest of the film lacks the sharp pacing and adrenaline that mark the best heist, con or crime/revenge pictures. It's a scant 97 minutes long (including credits) but feels longer, and in retrospect whole chunks of the film, especially the romantic subplot, could have been cut without any effect on the story. Film noir exercises like this need to go long on con and revenge, with the talky bits in-between kept to a lean minimum. "Chameleon" inverts the ratio, and it's a shame. What does work works very well, but there simply isn't enough of it.