A textbook case in which the parts are greater than the whole, "Gun Shy" alternately hits its target and fires blanks as the latest comedy crime pic to explore the vulnerabilities of tough guys.

A textbook case in which the parts are greater than the whole, “Gun Shy” alternately hits its target and fires blanks as the latest comedy crime pic to explore the vulnerabilities of tough guys. Tyro writer-helmer Eric Blakeney develops a distinctive pace and finds interesting ways to shoot and cut scenes, but his overall control of tone and attitude, as well as sense of sustainable comic riffs, are a bit of a mess. Never boring, though, the film intros a promising hyphenate while repping changes of pace for several of its thesps, starting with Liam Neeson. Pic could land medium-range B.O., while its comic-book take on crime figures should nicely help overseas performance as well as a long ancillary life.

On her first project as sole producer, Sandra Bullock could have given herself any role — and chose a minor supporting part, and one of the few underwritten by Blakeney, allowing mucho screen time for a host of character actors stretching their ranges.

Though conceived before “Analyze This” was released and before “The Sopranos” took off last year, “Gun Shy” nevertheless suffers from lying in their shadows. The film depicts a man whose work with very bad men causes emotional problems sufficiently severe to lead him to a shrink. Those problems are clear enough in the dazzling first scene, in which Charlie (Neeson) sits on the floor of a stall in an airport bathroom, talking out loud about his fear of continuing his undercover work for the DEA. Pic’s lighter side is established here, as a bathroom attendant listens in on Charlie, but there’s a fearsome side as well, with violent and even beautiful flashbacks of Charlie’s last near-disastrous sting operation.

The severe danger suggested in the flashback is replaced by a cadre of bad guys who can’t be taken all that seriously. Against his own wishes, Charlie is sent back into action by boss Lonny (Louis Giambalvo) and DEA chief Dexter (Mitch Pileggi) to pose as middle man between Mafia street boss and general hothead Fulvio (Oliver Platt), Colombian drug cartel reps Fidel (Jose Zuniga) and Estuvio (Michael Delorenzo) and Wall Street yuppie Jason (Andy Lauer). At the same time, Charlie’s nervous stomach is constantly sending him to the bathroom — leading to a string of mild poop jokes — while a random encounter sends him to sessions with psychiatrist Dr. Bleckner (Michael Mantell), who invites Charlie into his men’s group.

Particularly with the casting of the usually buffoonish Platt, the crime aspects of the tale would seem to lapse into pure comedy or take shape along the lines of “Get Shorty,” but the honed playing and dialogue (Blakeney slaved many years in the TV-scribe trenches) maintain — at least early on — just enough tension to infuse various “business” meetings with a “shoot now, talk later” sensibility. Neeson helps enormously in this regard, bringing an imposing presence to the role of straight man while credibly spilling his heart out to those who will listen. These include Bullock’s Judy, self-dubbed the Enema Queen, who makes cute with Charlie and his lower bowel regions, swearing that she’ll cure him within a month.

Fear is what troubles Charlie, she tells him, but instead of curing him, Judy appears to be present to provide the most token of love interests and repeatedly assure Charlie that he’ll come away unharmed. Alas, as the comic tone becomes shakier, there’s no doubt that Charlie will live to the last reel, since he’s dealing with increasingly silly bad guys.

Jason’s shell outfit is the tool to gain a price-fixing monopoly in a commodity — but the first one he tries (soybeans) is culturally offensive to Fidel. These and other crime comedy bits run far past their expiration point, but clever displays of cross-scene editing, plus corrupt nastiness on the DEA’s end, keep up the interest until final shootout aborts pic on a note of pure silliness.

Clearly, there’s a Clinton-era genre out there — the vulnerable tough-guy movie, playing into aud’s general acceptance that men can cry too. How it plays depends on what notes are struck; “The Sopranos” works precisely because its mobsters are the real deal, professionally cool but human underneath. “Gun Shy” is as strong as Neeson can make it, and he expresses, in what is sure to be one of his most underrated perfs, Charlie’s total range of abilities and flaws.

Combo of Platt, Zuniga, Lauer and Delorenzo could have been more electric, dangerous and funny at the same time, and by final faceoff they’ve become stick figures. Paradoxically, it’s one of pic’s few women — Mary McCormack in a dazzling change of pace as Fulvio’s no-nonsense wife, Gloria — who imbues her scenes with an amusing hard-hearted energy. Bullock is surprisingly forgettable in a near-throwaway role, while Pileggi (in one of pic’s several unexpected nods to “The X-Files”) effectively plays the evil twin of his Asst. Director Skinner on the tube show.

Tech credits are outstanding, particularly Tom Richmond’s ultra-crisp lensing, but Rolfe Kent’s jangly, half-serious score mirrors pic’s central problem of being all over the map.

Gun Shy

Production

A Buena Vista release of a Hollywood Pictures presentation of an Fortis Films production. Produced by Sandra Bullock. Co-producer, Marc S. Fischer. Directed, written by Eric Blakeney.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor), Tom Richmond; editor, Pamela Martin; music, Rolfe Kent; music supervisors, Emily Kaye, Alex Patsavas; production designer, Maher Ahmad; art director, Seth Reed; set decorator, Maurin Scarlata; costume designer, Mary Claire Hannan; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Geoffrey Patterson; supervising sound editor, Dave Hankins; assistant director, James B. Rogers; casting, Laurel Smith. Reviewed at Avco Cinema, L.A., Feb. 2, 2000. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 102 MIN.

With

Charlie - Liam Neeson Fulvio Nesstra - Oliver Platt Judy Tipp - Sandra Bullock Fidel Vaillar - Jose Zuniga Elliott - Richard Schiff Jason Cane - Andy Lauer Dexter Helvenshaw - Mitch Pileggi Howard - Paul Ben-Victor Gloria Nesstra - Mary McCormack Carmine Minetti - Frank Vincent Jonathan - Gregg Daniel Estuvio - Michael Delorenzo Dr. Bleckner - Michael Mantell Lonny Ward - Louis Giambalvo
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