Much as retailers cut prices on Dec. 26 to unload overstocked Christmas merchandise, so do film distributors — in the first week or two of January — hustle to dump the overflow of last year's scheduled-then-pulled releases. This is particularly true of indie films whose release dates have been postponed to avoid competing with the year-end flood of big-bucks, big-ad, big-hype studio pictures. They drop them into the schedule for a brief run on the way to home video.
This doesn't necessarily mean they're bad, but merely that there's not much to base the marketing on. Take the case of “Cold Comes the Night,” the second feature from director Tze Chun (“Children of Invention”). The presence of Bryan Cranston — in his first post-”Breaking Bad” role — is probably its biggest selling point; but he's not the lead. Rather he's the taciturn villain tormenting the protagonist, played by Alice Eve. The billing is designed to make his subsidiary importance clear: even though he's the second most important character, in the credits he's listed last among the principal players, with a privileged “and” credit. (The screenplay is credited to Chun, Nick Simon, and Oz “son of Tony” Perkins.)
Chloe (Eve) — widowed, poor, and with an 8-year-old daughter to support — manages a sleazy motel somewhere in upstate New York, not far from the Canadian border. Because the motel is a hangout for prostitutes and drug dealers, Social Services is threatening to remove Sophia (Ursula Parker) and place in a foster home. Chloe has two weeks to find a way out.
Meanwhile, Topo (Cranston, sporting a beard, a thick Eastern European accent, and an ever-present pair of shades) is transporting a bundle of drug money, accompanied by a driver (Leo Fitzpatrick). They stop at Chloe's motel for a rest, but their car — in which the money is hidden — ends up in police custody because of a driver screw-up, leaving Topo stranded. He must reclaim the loot from the police lot and find some way to get back on the road in time for his business rendezvous. He quietly takes Chloe and Sophia hostage, compelling the former to do his dirty work by threatening her child.
Innumerable films — from “The Devil Thumbs a Ride” (1947) to “A Perfect World” (1993) — have centered on a criminal on the lam hijacking a law-abiding citizen to get out of a jam. There is nothing particularly fresh about the execution here. But there's very little wrong with it either. Most of the time the plot requires Cranston to growl menacingly and not much else. It's notable that, by the end, his face conveys a bit of Topo's inner life, despite the dark sunglasses blocking our view.
Eve is a Brit, best known on this side of the pond for her role as Carol Marcus, the semi-stowaway doctor in last summer's “Star Trek Into Darkness.” She didn't get to do much there; given this role's emotional range, it's not surprising that she makes a much stronger impression.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).