By Scott Weinberg (originally published 1/22/08 -- Sundance Film Festival)

The title of Michael Keaton's directorial debut -- The Merry Gentleman -- is meant to be pretty ironic, because the only true gentleman in the movie is anything BUT merry. He is, as a matter of fact, a cold-blooded assassin who contemplates suicide after completing every contract. Even the normally perky Kelly Macdonald is generally quite miserable too, here playing a woman on the run from an abusive husband -- and a woman who just (unknowingly) became friends with that assassin guy.

Professional hitman Frank Logan is at the end of his rope. Clearly fed up with a life spent taking lives, Frank finishes up his latest contract, and then hops onto a rooftop ledge and considers a long plunge. At that same moment, on street level, a sweet young lady named Kate looks up to appreciate the new snowflakes -- and catches a glimpse of Frank. She screams, he slips and falls (backwards), and when the cops show up they find pretty much nothing. But the next morning (once a corpse is found in an upstairs office) two smart detectives pop up to ask Kate a few questions about the man she saw.

Needless to say, a killer of Frank's expertise is already well-aware of what the witness saw.


Thus begins a deliberately-paced (some might say "slow") crime drama that brings a strange sense of warmth, dark humor, and even some odd romance to a potentially dreary tale. It's sort of a love/hate triangle between Kate, Frank, and a sad-sack detective (Tom Bastounes), who also has eyes for the lovely witness -- but suffice to say that things don't exactly follow the traditional "love triangle" formula. Beyond that, I won't spoil any surprises.

But what a pleasure it is to see Michael Keaton back on the big screen again, and the veteran actor does a fantastic job on both sides of the camera. His debut as a director is a film with an austere look, a moody sensibility, and a pace that takes its time -- because Keaton clearly cares about these characters. As the usually silent assassin Frank Logan, Keaton bring some unspoken conflict to his every scene. He's not a "killer with a heart of gold," but a man who seems to have grown weary of pain -- and just wants to spend a little time with someone sweet. (For a while, anyway.)

One of Keaton's best moves was hiring the always-excellent Kelly Macdonald for his leading lady. Probably best known for her work in Trainspotting, Gosford Park and No Country for Old Men, Macdonald has no problem creating a character who's wounded, cautious, and scared -- but also sweet, generous, and genuine. (She's quickly becoming one of my very favorite actresses, and not just because she's an adorable Scottish lass with a wonderful accent.) As the lovesick cop with a few tricks up his sleeve, newcomer Tom Bastounes is also very good at building a conflicted character who's very kind and decent -- but also has a few big character flaws of his own. Bobby Cannavale contributes a very strong supporting performance as Kate's hateful husband; he and Macondald share a few powerful scenes together.

Certainly not a breezy little laugh riot, a warm-hearted love story, or an action-packed hit-man adventure, The Merry Gentleman is content to be a straightforward "people" story, albeit one with a little more brains than usual. It might roll a little slowly for some folks, but any time I can spend 110 minutes with both Keaton and Macdonald, I'm a happy guy. That said, the movie might benefit from a few slight trims, but overall, Mr. Keaton should be very proud of his first effort as a director.