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'Man from Reno' Is A Slow But Stylistic Throwback Thriller

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Pepe Serna stars as a small town sheriff in 'Man from Reno.' (Image: Courtesy of manfromrenomovie.com)
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Los Angeles Film Festival winner Man from Reno is a moody, slow-burning mystery that opens with a brilliant scene that sets the tone for the rest of the film. The picture fades in from black to grey as Sheriff Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna) drives in a thick soup of fog along a desolate stretch of road in the fictitious San Marco, a small town outside of San Francisco. When the sheriff happens upon an abandoned car with its doors ajar, the tension mounts. As soon as he clears the vehicle, and the audience is allowed to catch its collective breath, the sheriff accidentally hits a Japanese man, setting a chain of seemingly disparate storylines in motion. It’s a largely unhurried sequence—until the accident—and a pattern that the film follows on a macro level.

Director and co-writer Dave Boyle’s fifth feature is a marked departure from his first four, which were all comedies: Big Dreams Little Tokyo, White on Rice, Surrogate Valentine and Daylight Savings. In the Man from Reno, Boyle borrows heavily from the noir canon and the Coen Brothers’ playbook, but adds a multicultural dimension—transitioning with ease from English to Japanese with subtitles—that stylistically sets the film apart. Despite its lower-budget (Boyle used Kickstarter to help him finish it), Man From Reno is a gorgeous-looking film thanks in large part to cinematographer Richard Wong and production designer Katy Porter.

As the plot thickens in San Marco, Japanese mystery author Aki Akahori (Ayako Fujitani) hides out in San Francisco to escape the pressures of the book tour for her best-selling Inspector Takabe series. A smart and confident, but melancholy woman, Aki harbors secrets of her own, which would radically alter her life if they ever surfaced. In her loneliness, she begins an affair with an enigmatic Japanese traveler, and titular character, Akira Suzuki (Kazuki Kitamura). When Akira suddenly disappears from their hotel, he leaves behind a suitcase that’s filled with more questions than clothes—thanks to a fresh head of lettuce tucked in between the layers of shirts and underwear. Soon after Akira vanishes, Aki is visited by nefarious-looking thugs, who believe she’s hiding information and his whereabouts.

To find her lover, Aki channels her inner detective, but thankfully, Boyle doesn’t turn her into an uber-investigator who solves cases with ease. While she’s observant, intelligent and sharp-tongued, Aki handles matters realistically: She calls the police to help locate her friend and files a report. She doesn’t take unnecessary chances and reacts in believable ways in dangerous situations.

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However, the more Aki tries to unravel Akira’s disappearance, the more complicated the situation becomes. The film languidly unfolds each storyline separately until Aki’s search crosses paths with Del Moral’s case in San Marco. The teaming of the film’s two leads helps speed up the pace of the action, and together Fujitani and Serna have a terrific chemistry. On the downside to this pairing, Boyle and co-writers Joel Clark and Michael Lerman nearly trip over themselves to confound Aki and Del Moral—and the viewers as well. The investigators encounter a few MacGuffins and a number of throwaway characters, who serve no discernible purpose other than to muddle the mix. It’s hard to keep up with the faces and names who play such minor characters. A superfluous scene early has Aki dialing up an old college girlfriend and her husband for dinner. After several years of estrangement, it’s out of character for the semi-reclusive author. We’re set up to believe that her friends will play a larger role in the film, but don’t, and this happens with too many other characters.

Despite a slow start, and an at times, an overly complicated plot, the Man From Reno is still a good throwback—an old-fashioned mystery with an ending that we didn't see coming.

Man From Reno opens in theaters around Los Angeles and other select cities today.