“The Handler is by far my most action packed film; it is my throwback to ’80s and ’90s action films.”
— Michael Matteo Rossi in the pages of The Movie Waffler
Our first exposure to the work of South Florida-born and L.A. transplanted actor, writer and director Chris Levine (I Hate Kids, The Ice Cream Stop) was by way of his third screenwriting effort: the feature film No Way Out, released last year. Here, in his eighth feature film as an actor (he’s also appeared in array of shorts and web series), he stars in writer-director Michael Matteo Rossi’s fourth feature film. Levine is Ryker Dune: an ex-marine who makes his scratch as a mercenary. After a failed (never explained) mission, Dune returns with a lone, Tarantino-mysterious, ratty trash bag as he bunkers in a “safe house,” one that’s not as safe as he thinks: he now fights for his life against Russian and Samoan agents who want the bag’s contents, as his own ex-soldiers-in-arms are sent to kill him. The message by his bosses (an effective Michael Pashan as Vinnie Fiore) is clear: in our business, there is no such thing as a “last job.”
There’s slight, occasional moments of non-subtitled Russian and Samoan, all of which is well done, natural and not the least bit distracting (but will most likely be subtitled for its consumer stream and DVDs; I watched a press screener). What may be slightly distracting (to the few; not to me, as I’ll soon explain) are the CGI-created blood and bullets in place of the major studio-funded squibs and blood packs afforded to the films in which The Handler pays homage. The Handler, however, still offers us the best-made CGI B n’ B I’ve seen in any indie streamer of late, so kudos to the SFX team headed by James Poirier. In fact, The Handler serves as a production-solid introductory course as CGI-created artillery may soon be a cinematic norm for major studio A-List productions: In the wake of the Alec Baldwin incident, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has pledged his Seven Bucks Productions will no longer use real guns on sets and those “effects” will be taken care of in post-production. (However, the CGI deployed in The Handler is solely budgetary and not a politicized, reactionary knee-jerk.)
Those CGI artillery moments aside: The Handler is still a passionate, against-the-budget action-boiler where you do not hit the big red streaming button expecting an “aging action star” romp of the Liam Neeson variety rife with A-List, summer tent pole Bayos and Bayhems under the canvas with Bruce Willis as the Murphy’s Law Ringmaster. The Handler, like its predecessors, is action-packed with expertly choreographed fight scenes effectively executed by its obviously skilled cast as Chris Levine impresses with a major studio fighting edge that would give a Gruber brother concern. There’s nothing clumsy about the “action” in The Handler and it’s certainly above the frays of most of the indie action flicks that proliferate ad-stream services (such as Tubi). Rebooting Die Hard, Hollywood? Call up Chris Levine from the indie-streaming dug out. Need a villain to take over Alcatraz ? Call 1-800-Tyrone Magnus.
Yeah, I’ve strolled down this new, indie-action streaming boulevard many enjoyable times, 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 with The Handler as the new house on the block (as well as writer-actor Giuseppe Lucarelli’s just-released Checkmate) is more akin to the pretty fine Eric Roberts-starring 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.
And it’s a good thing that I’m enjoying my Micheal Dudikoff (Musketeers Forever), Leo Fong (Kill Point), Olivier Gruner (Nemesis, Velocity Trap), Ron Marchini (“Ron Machini Week“!), Chris Mitchum (The Serpent Warriors), and Jim Mitchum (Raiders of the Magic Ivory) rental days of yore with a serviceable streaming action thriller lacking that “star” streaming enticement of Eric Roberts as the nefarious element who wants Ryker Dune, our anti-hero, dead. Do we, however, need Roberts, here? No, sir, as the under-the-radar Michael Pashan and Tyrone Mangus fill his shoes just fine. Rossi’s pen gives the cast a nice collection of expected, retro-action one-liners, and cinematographer Jon Schweigart (100 credits since 2010) makes everyone look ’80s action sweet. Unlike most indie streams that indulge in the non-DVD or commercial cable TV format and eschew a tight, 80-minute format — for a sometimes get-on-with-it-already almost two-hour runtime — Rossi, along with editors David S. Dawson and Mike Peterson, keep us engaged courtesy of a spunky 77-minute run time (one hour seventeen minutes).
What’s really cool is the eight minute credit sequence (that takes us to the 85-minute mark): Rossi takes the time to spotlight his hard working cast with a closing series of vignettes to highlight each actor, along with their name; then, the credits are in a larger typeface and scroll at a more leisurely, non-major studio pace to give Rossi’s hard working crew their moment to shine.
And shine everyone has: they handled their respective disciplines with a class and style as an example to what other streaming action films must strive. True to the poster: The Handler does what it takes to get the retro-action job done.
“With each film I try to add even more action and thrills to the story and feel like this film packs a serious, non-stop action punch. I’m excited for the world to see it soon.”
— Michael Matteo Rossi in the pages of Jumpcut
Where to Watch, Where to Buy
The Handler, which comes off a well-received screening at the Silicon Beach Film Festival held at the TLC 6 Chinese Theater on October 4, 2021, will world premiere via Uncork’d Entertainment on all the usual streaming platforms — as well as Amazon Prime — on December 7, 2021. You can keep abreast of the film on its official Instagram and Twitter portals. You can also learn more about the production of The Handler as Michael Matteo Rossi spoke this February with YM Cinema, in March in the pages of Geek Vibes, and in April for a podcast with Bravo for the B-Side. You can also follow Micheal Matteo Rossi’s work on Facebook.
Fans of Australian icon Vernon “The Wez” Wells will enjoy his starring in Rossi’s currently-in-production action tale, The Sweepers, due in September 2022. Wells also stars with Chris Levine — alongside Francis Capra (little Calogero in A Bronx Tale) — in Rossi’s upcoming Shadows, due to drop this November. (See what I mean: streaming enticement.)
You can also enjoy the film reviews of Chris Levine’s co-star, Tyrone Magnus (the merc, Logan Strong), on his popular You Tube portal. You can follow Chris Levine’s career on Facebook and learn more about his career with his interview at Voyage LA. Be sure to keep your streaming platforms at the ready for Chris Levine’s continued work with writer-director Joe Hamilton, as they follow up No Way Out with I Die. You Live. and Woods of Ash.
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies (links to a truncated teaser-listing of his reviews).