Halifax has seldom looked scummier onscreen than it does in Charlie Zone, a low-budget thriller that presents the Nova Scotia capital as a dingy string of motels and run-down houses for a ragged population of crooks, junkies and liars. The hero is no real prize either: Once a promising amateur boxer, Avery Paul (Glen Gould) now pummels goons for a streaming-video website called Halifights.com. “A disgraced athlete reduced to an Internet joke,” notes one visitor to his run-down apartment, and Avery doesn’t bother correcting her. Even though he’s barely middle-aged, he knows that his best days are behind him.
What he doesn’t suspect, however, is that his miserable, punch-drunk existence is about to get a whole lot worse. When he’s approached by a middle-class couple to locate and retrieve their runaway daughter, Avery has no choice but to accept the money – he’s broke and has a nasty heroin habit to boot. His target, when he finds her, is similarly strung out: Jan (Amanda Crew) is huddled in a crack den in the eponymous Charlie Zone making furtive pay-phone calls home. She’s none too thrilled to be rescued, especially since her white knight has to chloroform her and stick her in his car trunk to get her out. “You just bought yourself a nightmare,” she sneers by way of a thank you.
Jan may be ungrateful, but she isn’t lying. In addition to her drug-dealer boyfriend, there’s another, even nastier set of bad guys on Jan’s tail, and Avery’s facility for fisticuffs doesn’t go far against a roomful of thugs. Avery takes some hefty lumps in the line of duty, and at times Charlie Zone seems to revel in brutality. As in the 2008 thriller Taken (which it superficially resembles), the strategy is to viciously batter the hero so that his violent revenge feels earned rather than excessive – and to make the people on the receiving end of his retribution so revolting that we want to watch them squirm. The violence isn’t a problem in and of itself, except that Charlie Zone also flirts with social critique, bemoaning the state of its economically depressed backdrop. In doing so, it supplies the only gore you don’t want from a B-movie: a bleeding heart.
Gould, a long-time TV veteran, is credibly hard-edged in this highly physical role, but he also has a sort of wounded decency that’s played refreshingly straight. Not once does Avery seem to relish his knockabout virtuosity (he doesn’t offer up any clever one-liners, either). As Jan, Crew has heavier actorly lifting to do, including a tearful monologue delivered in the throes of heroin withdrawal. She’s solid as well, pushing past her initial brittleness to arrive at a well-rounded characterization, even if it’s not especially hard to guess the deep, dark secret Jan’s holding in for most of the movie.
There isn’t a whole lot of style to Charlie Zone, but the movie-making is as determined and efficient (and thrifty) as Avery himself. Directing from his own screenplay (co-written by Joseph LeClair), Michael Melski slugs his way through a gauntlet of genre clichés, and even if no scene really stands out, he shows just enough scrappiness to keep this earnest exercise in Canuxpolitation off the canvas until the final bell.