In the interest of full disclosure, I donated to the Kickstarter campaign of Dave Boyle’s “Man From Reno,” and despite having the pleasure to interview the writer/director from time to time, my primary motivation to contribute was not because of our casual acquaintance, but the fact that “Man From Reno” was exactly the type of film I wanted to see Boyle make. After reworking the genre conventions of romantic comedies with the singer/songwriter Goh Nakamura as his lead for his last two films “Surrogate Valentine” and “Daylight Savings,” which carried a certain swagger in their visual scheme even as they shuffled through plots that were wafer thin (and just as sweet), it was exciting to think what Boyle could do if he turned his attention to a crime thriller.
The result is not all that surprising, at least in terms of how accomplished “Man From Reno” is, though Boyle and co-writers Joel Clark and Michael Lerman have their fair share up their sleeves in telling the story of Aki (Ayako Fujitani), a Japanese author of mysteries who gets caught up in one of her own while her book tour rolls through San Francisco. Approached at her hotel’s bar by a handsome stranger named Akira (an appropriately rakish Kazuki Kitamura), she indulges in a one-night stand that grows strange the following morning when she can’t find him and it turns out she’s not the only one looking as she’s visited by a host of suspicious looking men in the days that follow. Only one, Sherriff Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna), proves trustworthy enough to let through her door, though his interest in equally murky, having hit a man on a dusty road late at night thought to be the same person as her conquest. Together, the two work together to find out his true identity and potentially illegal connections.
As soon as one of the clues provided is a head of lettuce that falls out of the suitcase the man leaves behind, you know “Man From Reno” is far from your standard-issue procedural. Then again, that’s evident from the film’s distinctive introductory scene in which a pitch black title card artfully turns into the fuzzy haze where Sherriff Del Moral experiences his inciting car accident. With Richard Wong’s crisp cinematography, colors have a vibrancy and depth that remind of a Dashiell Hammett novel and in fact, there’s a timelessness to the mechanics of the mystery which moves around the sprawl of San Francisco as stealthily as “Chinatown” did Los Angeles. Yet there’s also something refreshingly modern about the pairing of Aki and Del Moral as the detectives, each with some secrets of their own as they leave no stone unturned. The subtle cultural barrier between the two add an extra layer of intrigue to an already compelling case, one that unfolds at a perfectly calibrated pace for suspense.
There are times during “The Man From Reno” where the stakes can feel small, in spite of Boyle’s best efforts to creatively work within what likely was a limited budget. However, more often than not, he’s able to get away with murder between his confident compositions and the intimacy of the Fujitani and Serna’s performances that shift the tension from the whodunit at hand to how they deal with their own personal conundrums. At least someone does in what marks a big step forward for the director, who satisfies even as he’s leaving the audience with an appropriate amount of questions, not the least of which is what genre he might enliven next.
“The Man From Reno” opens in limited release on March 27.