Checkmate (2021)

Straight outta the McMurray township, southwest of Pittsburgh, Giuseppe Lucarelli got his start in the business as a background actor on Northeastern U.S. and New York-shot network TV series such as Law and Order and Lipstick Jungle. As with Florida-based actors Chris Levine and Michigan-based Mason Heidger (Now Way Out and Tomorrow Is Yesterday, respectively), Lucarelli had enough of the auditions, the film school shorts and all of the other crazy hoops young acting hopefuls navigate. So he formed his own production company, Mountain Wind Productions, to write and direct Checkmate, his feature film debut (David Minniefield co-directs). He stars as Kyle Braddock, the medical examiner son of the recently murdered Chief Braddock “with a special set of skills” reluctantly drawn into an action-packed, downward spiral. The rest of the unknown, effective cast is headed by Sara Torres (roles on TV’s Dynasty and Cobra Kai), Matthew McCurdy (Agent Wells on CW’s Daredevil), and Dave Whalen (support roles in the theatrical features The Fault in Our Stars, Southpaw, and Jack Reacher).

Produced over a four-year period in and around Canonsburg, Southpointe, Pittsburgh’s Southside and Marketsquare, an assassin-serial killer known as Checkmate (James Quinn, lots of background work on Steel Town-shot features) has kidnapped — so the city believes — the daughter (Sara Torres) of the city’s new “Top Cop,” Chief Masters (Dave Whalen), in retaliation for his highly publicized crackdown on the human trafficking trade plaguing the city. This is a dark Pittsburgh: cops are in on the trafficking. Meanwhile, Kyle has actually rescued Katie Masters — and he’s on the run for the cop murders perpetrated by Checkmate. Now, two cops: one honest, one corrupt (the under-the-radar impressive Arash Mokhtar alongside the imposing Matthew McCurdy from Daredevil) race against time to uncover the truth.

The usual road for a new-to-the-scene indie filmmaker is horror: they’re cheap and easy to make because all you need is a patch of woods or swatch of desert and you’re ready to shoot. Taking on the action genre against-the-budget — in the city limits, no less — is not a small, easy task. The production values on this debut feature by Giuseppe Lucarelli, while on-a-budget, are nontheless higher in quality than your average Lifetime damsel-in-distress production (the Sara Torres connection). As a director, Lucarelli knows his camera and effectively froths his Iron City-locations into an effective noirish foam. He’s also pulled the best from his actors: sure, they’re not award-winning, but they’re not staccato-line reading thespians, either. His scripting is pretty solid as well. One of his nice turns of the Final Draft occurs when entering Katie’s apartment: Kyle tells her to wait, as it seems the bad guys have trashed her apartment looking for a crucial laptop, only to discover: “You mean you live like this?”.

We are not going to sugar coat: the reviews on Amazon and the IMDb haven’t been kind. And yes, this was shot in the hometown Pittsburgh-base of B&S About Movies — but that doesn’t mean we’re crackin’ the Olde Frothingslosh and giving Checkmate a raving, free-pass on our pages. If you’ve spent any time at our site, you know the rules: we are not going to review a film to tear down an indie filmmaker’s sincere efforts. So, if you’ve made it this far into the review, you know we’re not going to steer you wrong. Sure, Checkmate isn’t a perfect film, but there’s something streaming-worthy happening here. There’s a skill set and class in the frames from all concerned, so crack the Rolling Rock, and enjoy.

I’ve been down this new, indie-action road before with Prince Bagdasarian’s Abducted and Steven C. Miller’s serviceable action-thrillers packed with morally-screwed characters, such as the Bruce Willis-starring First Kill (2017), the Nicolas Cage-starring Arsenal (2018), and the Aaron Eckhart-starring Line of Duty (2019). Ditto for Claire Forlani upending the male-dominated genre with Inferno: Skyscraper Escape and Precious Cargo. Those films, however, benefited from their higher, under $5 million budgets. So what we have in the frames of Checkmate is more akin to the recent Eric Roberts-starring more cost-effective action-thriller (and he’s in the film more than most of his 590-plus films), Lone Star Deception — and that’s not a bad thing. Checkmate is a serviceable streaming action-thriller, but if you’re hitting the big red streaming button expecting a Willis-Cage joint awash in Bayos n’ Bayhems with an Eckart-chiseled jaw charisma, well . . . don’t do that. Add Giuseppe Lucarelli’s effort to the list and you’ll enjoy the thrilling ride.

One of the standouts of Checkmate is the soundtrack by Alex Triveri, who also doubled on the cinematography crew. He’s created a nice, Tangerine Dream-styled vibe in spots — giving Checkmate a low-res, Micheal Mann à la Thief — and I have no doubt he’s a fan of those German soundtrack masters. In addition to Triveri, Adrienne Wagner serves on the camera crew headed by William Feduska — in his second feature film, with his first being the found-footage horror The Devil’s Toy Box (2017). I really enjoy Feduska’s lighting and framing, here. So I’ll not only seek out his first film: if I see his name in the future, I’ll stream that film, as well.

Another appreciation is the gunfire effects: there are none, as those effects are effectively cutaway and implied. An action aficionado may feel denied by the lack of squibs and the use of blank weapons fire. Personally, CGI gun fire and After Effects bullet wounds — which is the budgetary norm for films of this ilk, well, they just don’t work for me. So, I appreciate the cutaway trick-of-the-eye-and-sound: I rather that than budgetary CGI bullets. (Please, save your sociopolitcal debates about Alec Baldwin and guns on sets. That’s not why we’re here. This is a movie review.)

Coming soon!

Making its self-released debut in June 2019 on Tubi, Checkmate now makes its wider spread, free-with-ads stream debut this month on You Tube courtesy of Indie Rights Movies**. If you prefer an ads-free experience, you can stream the film on Amazon Prime. And make an effort to stream, you should: Half of the profits from the film’s streaming income will be donated to World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit launched by celebrity chef Jose Andres that provides meals for people impacted by natural disasters.

You can follow the latest developments with the film at its official Facebook page and the Mountain Wind Productions website. You can follow Indie Rights Movies on You Tube and Facebook.

You can learn more about actor, writer and director Giuseppe Lucarelli — and his work in the martial arts — courtesy of his recent interview (You Tube) on the Jibber Jabber Podcast.

Giuseppe Lucarelli has also recently completed shooting on his second feature, The First Seal. An action-thriller, it stars Rachel Keller, who you’ve recently enjoyed on episodes of the FOX-TV series Legion and Fargo.

You say you need more Yinzer movies? Well, we heard ol’ Marsha Phillips sing, so we got down and dirty in the Monongahela mud with Pittsburgh-made giallo films courtesy of our “Exploring:Yinzer Giallo” featurette (which has a Rowdy Herrington Easter Egg-interview!). Hey, somebody needs to deep think these things . . . and our flabby, soft-as-veal, cubicle-raised bodies are up to the film critic challenge. Also, this past February, for one of our “Back to the Drive-In” double-features nights, we watched the sort-of-Yinzer flicks Frankenstein 3-D paired with The Majorettes.

* Our thanks to Brad Hundt of The Washington Observer-Reporter for his August 2021 interview, which assisted us in the writing of this film review to honor the indie filmmaking efforts of Giuseppe Lucarelli.

** Three more, recently released indies we’ve reviewed now streaming via Indie Rights Movies are Wanton Want, The Misadventures of Mistress Maneater, and Cold Feet.

About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. In addition to writing film reviews for B&S About Movies, he publishes music journalism pieces, as well as short stories based on his screenplays, on Medium.

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