A Gun, a Car, a Blonde" creates an homage to vintage film noir that's cooked up out of the fantasy life of a cancer patient seeking distraction from his pain. Composed of dual stories featuring variations on the same characters, the film's mainframe drama is far less interesting than the familiar but functional mystery woven through it. Pic was one of the more popular selections of the alternative Slamdance Festival in Park City, Utah, this year, but minor festival dates and some exposure in U.S. indie showcases look to be about the limit. Confined to a wheelchair while in remission from spinal cancer, Richard (Jim Metzler) divides his days between idle self-pity, agonizing pain and annoyance at his intrusive sister, Peep (Kay Lenz), whom his friends suspect may be sniffing around after an inheritance.

His longtime chum Duncan (John Ritter), an advocate of New Age therapies, urges him to try objectification, a type of self-hypnosis involving the construction in his mind of an alternative self.

Richard at first scoffs at the idea, but, inspired by his heavy intake of afternoon mystery movies on cable, he pretty soon imagines himself — in black-and-white, replete with voiceover and accompanied by the strains of a bluesy saxophone — as jaded Los Angeles private eye Rick Stone.

A sultry blond neighbor (Andrea Thompson) to whom he has never spoken also enters the fantasy as recently widowed Jade Norfleet. She is convinced someone is trying to kill her, and enlists Rick’s help. Aided by a tip-off from an underworld restaurateur known as the Black Chinaman (Victor Love, who doubles as Richard’s nurse), Rick uncovers a murder plot orchestrated by Jade’s scheming sis (Lenz again) in cahoots with a corrupt cop (Billy Bob Thornton).

The script, by director Stefani Ames and “One False Move” co-writer Tom Epperson, is more notable for its use of common elements that bleed into both strands than for either one taken on its own merits. Richard’s feelings for the figures in his real life tend to carry over to those in his imagination, and, likewise, the outcome of the mystery appears to alter the shape of certain important life choices he makes.

Part of the reason the material remains on the flat side is the uncharismatic cast. Metzler functions well enough in the noir scenes but fails to spark much interest in Richard or provide him with any depth. Lenz is shrill in both guises, and other actors, including Ritter and Thornton, who also appears as Peep’s shifty bumpkin boyfriend, merely walk through it.

A Gun, a Car, a Blonde

Production

A Showcase Entertainment/Vista Del Mar Prods. presentation, in association with BFA Cinema and Century Park Entertainment Group, of a Vista Del Mar production. (International sales: Showcase Entertainment, Woodland Hills, Calif.) Produced by Gary M. Bettman, Tom Epperson. Executive producer, David R. Miller. Co-producers, Stefani Ames, Peter Zinner. Directed by Stefani Ames. Screenplay, Tom Epperson, Ames

Crew

Camera (Foto-Kem color/B&W), Carlos Gaviria; editor, Peter Zinner; music, Harry Manfredini; sound (Dolby), David Waelder; line producer, Marilyn Lee Penn; assistant director, Stephen Hearst; casting, Pat Melton, Paul Bens. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (market), May 10, 1997. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Richard/Rick Stone ..... Jim Metzler Peep/Madge ..... Kay Lenz Syd/Monk ..... Billy Bob Thornton Blond Neighbor/ Jade Norfleet..... Andrea Thompson Bobby/ The Black Chinaman ..... Victor Love Duncan/Bartender ..... John Ritter
Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more