Thursday, October 17, 2013

Neglected Gem #47: Gun Shy (2000)

Sandra Bullock & Liam Neeson
From the time Sandra Bullock started getting prominent movie roles in the early 1990s, she’s always had the sexy, shiny-faced glow of a  star, and she’s so easy to like, and so emotionally open, that it’s been fun watching her learn to act. Bullock, who’s currently showing just how much she’s learned in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, has had something of a stealth career, quietly mixing a steady stream of successful commercial comedies with Oscar-bait projects like Crash and The Blind Side, while avoiding the kind of missteps that badly dented the careers of some other actresses who were once touted by the media as being much smarter, such as Geena Davis’ decision to forsake her own romantic-comedy gifts to become Renny Harlin’s action-blockbuster muse. Bullock also makes her own luck. She started to branch out into producing into the late ‘90s, taking charge of George Lopez’s highly lucrative TV sitcom and several of her own movie hits. She also produced one terrific commercial dud – Gun Shy, a crime comedy released to near-universal indifference early in 2000, which marks the writing-directing debut of Eric Blakeney.

Blakeney, who hasn’t made another movie (or, for that matter, worked on another TV show) since, wrote several classic episodes of the better TV crime dramas of the ‘80s, including Wiseguy, Crime Story, and The Equalizer. His script for Gun Shy carries some of the ideas in those shows to another level, and the movie looks like TV, especially compared to the kind of scuzzball flash and jumbled time frames that Quentin Tarantino and his imitators had made the fashionable style for crime movies in the late ‘90s. The hero, Charlie (Liam Neeson), is an undercover federal agent (like the hero of Wiseguy). When we meet him, he hasn’t recovered from his last assignment, which ended with a blown cover, the murder of his partner, and a bloody shootout that kicks off when Charlie is tied up and laid out on “a silver serving tray” with his face pressed against “mushy watermelon.” (The opening flashback to this traumatic massacre is as flamboyant as Blakeney’s filmmaking gets, and it’s so choppily edited as to raise suspicions that the footage was salvaged from a longer sequence that was meant to play out in full, but that Blakeney couldn’t get to work.)

Depressed, miserable, confused, and suffering from PTSD, Charlie wants to walk away, but gets sucked into a new case in New York, involving a disparate group of hoods: a gangster named Fulvio (Oliver Platt) who’s seen as “a leg breaker” but is being given the chance to prove himself because he’s the son-in-law of the Don (Frank Vincent); a gay Colombian, Fidel (Jose Zuniga), who’s one of the twelve sons of his drug kingpin father, and his dimply lover (Michael DeLorenzo); and Jason (Andy Lauer), an aspiring white collar criminal whose efforts to live the big pimpin’ lifestyle he’s seen in rap videos only serves to offend his new business partners. Except for the cheerfully oblivious Jason, all these characters seem like classic candidates for therapy, but it’s Charlie, the good guy whose job forbids him from showing anyone his real self, who winds up spilling his guts. Lured into the office of a psychiatrist (Michael Mantell) he meets on a plane, he talks about himself for two hours, and is then persuaded to sit in on a group therapy session. His fellow sufferers, who include Richard Schiff, Paul Ben-Victor, and Gregg Daniel, talk about their fears of their bosses and their petty domestic battles with their wives, before Charlie finally opens his mouth and gets their attention with his own workplace stories of living a fabricated identity and having guns in his face. (As if trying to maintain a level of continuity between their bitching and his own, his speech begins, “I really hate watermelon…”)

Mary McCormack & Oliver Platt in Gun Shy

Much of the comedy in this superbly acted movie comes from the frustration that the characters feel about being trapped inside false identities. Charlie, who hates not being able to be truthful about his feelings, doesn’t immediately recognize that he’s the only one in his crooked little circle who has any input in the role in which he’s been cast. Fidel gets angry with Jason for trying to show him the club scene, then apologizes: “I’m very sensitive to this whole Colombian coke-dealer stereotype,” this Colombian coke dealer explains. “It prevents me from loosening up.” Fulvio, who Charlie first sums up as a pure psycho, is a simple but complicatedly unhappy man who is unappreciated by both his father-in-law (who responds to Fulvio’s formal promise to someday provide him with grandchildren by saying, “Have a little mercy on the planet.”) and his wife, played by Mary McCormack. (McCormack, that wry sunbeam of an actress, is near-unrecognizable, and very funny, as an auburn-haired harpy, who catches her husband sneaking in after a night out with the boys and tells him, “I don’t care who you kill for a living or how much shit you push, but you start that Don Johnson Colombian party scene shit, and I will staple your dick to your forehead.”)

Sandra Bullock appears in the relatively small role of Charlie’s love interest, a hippie specialist in gastrointestinal problems who administers enemas and takes him on dates to her garden, where they lyrically spread manure and plant seeds. (That rough night on a serving tray didn’t just mess with Charlie’s mind; he’s also having trouble controlling his bowels.) She’s an appropriately puckish dream girl for Neeson’s outsized, male-sleeping-beauty misery, but the central relationship turns out to be between Charlie and Fulvio, who warm up to each other without quite understanding each other. Fulvio, who longs to escape his life and grow his own tomatoes, thinks Italy is the most beautiful place in the world, though, of course, he’s never been there; he’s suitably impressed to learn that, in the course of his travels, Charlie once changed planes in Rome. (“No shit,” Fulvio says. “It must’ve been great.” Charlie shrugs: “It was a nice airport.”) For all the work that Charlie puts into his tough-guy mask. Fulvio admires him for the smooth way he can deal with accountants, showing them that the paperwork for their shell corporation is in order, and for the signs of nihilistic depression that Fulvio mistakes for icy cool.

In a late-night conversation in a parked car, Charlie is stunned to learn that Fulvio hates being taken for a thug: “You’re so good at fucking people up, I thought you loved your work!” Gun Shy is about how being good at a job that’s killing you shouldn’t be enough; it’s about the desire for a life that transcends being afraid that the dissatisfying existence you’re trapped in might be taken away. It’s too bad that Blakely couldn’t find a way to resolve the story, and let his theme fully bloom, except with a fantasy about falling into enough money to buy any new life that suits your fancy. Gun Shy has a sloppy, thrown-together heist-picture ending, of the sort that’s all about making sure the right characters end up holding the right container of cash – a goal that, if his enema treatments and Sandra Bullock’s ministrations had really done their job, Charlie should have moved beyond. But the final image, of Oliver Platt, his face bathed in honest sweat, admiring a ripe tomato, is one of the happiness closing shots of the last several years of movies.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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