“Emerald Run” is one of the weirdest hodgepodges to make its way to theater screens and digital platforms in quite some time. Unfortunately, oddness is just about the only thing this muddled little indie has going for it. Despite the game efforts of lead actor David Chokachi and attractive lensing by DP Michael Caradonna, the film — directed by Eric Etebari from a script credited to Anthony and Mariuccia Caruso — somehow manages to transition from anodyne desert noir thriller to heavy-handed faith-based melodrama without ever generating sufficient interest to be credible or compelling.
Chokachi plays John Thomas, an unemployed family man who’s understandably anxious about his teenage daughter’s medical condition — some hard-to-diagnose disease is making her life a living hell — and increasingly desperate to find a way to cover mounting medical bills. Anna (Yancy Butler), his devoutly Catholic wife, feels frequent mass attendance and some comforting words from their parish priest will be enough to save their daughter. But John, whose own relationship with God appears to be a tad frayed, is more inclined to make a deal with the devil.
Specifically, John seeks employment with his father-in-law, Alfio Sarda (Chris Mulkey), a mobbed-up Italian restaurateur who all-too-quickly offers his son-in-law the opportunity for a quick score. All John has to do is fly down across the border, team up with a Mexican freelance accomplice named Emilio (well played by Sean Burgos), purchase some emeralds from a pair of dodgy “businessmen” and bring the precious stones back to Alfio’s ristorante.
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“Trust me,” Alfio tells his son-in-law. “I’ll take care of everything.” But, of course, he doesn’t.
Even before Emilio reveals to John the bible he keeps in the same pants pocket where he stashes a gun clip, there are enough hints — churchgoing here, conspicuous displays of crosses there — that “Emerald Run” has more than just B-movie caper clichés on its agenda. And sure enough, as the two men are forced to cross an unforgiving stretch of desert on foot while pursued by heavily-armed malefactors in a dune buggy, “Emerald Run” reveals its true colors as the story of a man who gets a shot at redemption while frequently being shot at.
As John staggers along his own private road to Cavalry, or at least strives to find a way to a main highway, he is given to guilty self-recriminations and confusing flashbacks, along with sporadic hallucinations involving his long-missing, criminally inclined brother (John Schneider) and a hectoring minister (Steven Williams) who reminds him that, hey, maybe he’d better change his godless ways. He also hears words of wisdom from … well, Dodson (Vernon Wells) is a flesh-and-blood Good Samaritan who comes to the aid of wayward desert travelers. In this context, however, he’s probably better described as a voice crying out in the wilderness.
Thanks to Dodson, John sets off on a path to righteousness. Unfortunately, he takes a few detours to wrap up dangling plot threads, leading to at least one ludicrous third-act reveal that could tempt you to shout rude things at the screen. If you are so inclined, though, you might find some amusement in a scene that has a badge-waving FBI agent intimidating a female character who’s able to avoid arrest only because of her alliance with John. It’s such a canned moment, one half-expects the filmmakers to cue up an appropriate snippet of The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.” Truth to tell, that might have helped.