A modestly scaled but slick crime caper, “10 Cent Pistol” serves up a diverting if overcomplicated menu of flashbacks and betrayals among organized-crime players in Los Angeles. This first directorial feature for scenarist Michael C. Martin (who also co-penned the concurrent horror-thriller “The Vatican Tapes”), produced by fraternal leads JT and Damon Alexander, is a genre exercise that should make decent niche-sales inroads in various formats. It launches July 24 on VOD and iTunes, simultaneous with limited U.S. theatrical release.
Two policemen show up at an impressive Hollywood Hills manse, having been alerted by a silent alarm. A young man, Harris (Thomas Ian Nicholas) appears very reluctant to let them in, and his apparent girlfriend, Danneel (Jena Malone), is no less awkward in greeting the visitors. There are others stiffly gathered in a living room, while someone is supposedly stuck in an elevator upstairs. Clearly something very fishy is going on — though just what what that is escapes the cops’ detection.
From this loaded moment, our wise-guy narrator Easton (Damon Alexander) winds back the clock to a year earlier, when he was having four bullets dug out of his back. That misfortune was just one among many tangled consequences of a “Russian job” he pulled, killing a client of wealthy mobster Punchy (Joe Mantegna), whose home and son are now under threat in the present tense. While Punchy promised Easton no jail time and a hefty reward in return for that hit, he reneged on both. Once hot-tempered Easton gets out of prison some months later, he enlists his brainier longtime criminal partner, Jake (JT Alexander), in enacting his revenge.
A third conspirator, of sorts, is aspiring actress Danneel — officially Easton’s squeeze, though unbeknownst to him, she and Jake got very cozy during his locked-up absence. All of them share a roomy loft apartment, creating an uncomfortable, unacknowledged menage a trois in which we gradually realize each participant is hiding a major, disloyal agenda from the others.
Those revelations are so densely packed into “10 Cent Pistol’s” sometimes confusing flashback structure that they carry less punch than they ought to. Martin’s screenplay is so tricky in the plot-twist and scrambled-chronology departments, there’s little attention left to limn the character depths that might make us more invested in sussing out so many double- and triple-crosses. When there’s a big climactic shootout in the mansion (with some participants wearing masks), the average viewer might be forgiven for wondering just who is shooting whom, and why. (More successful in suspense terms, perhaps because its action is comparatively stripped down, is an earlier setpiece in which Jake nervously heists a car under the nose of a belligerent parking-garage attendant, played by Justin Hires.) While some may look forward to repeat viewings in order to better unravel “Pistol’s” narrative intricacies, others will find it simply too fussy a puzzle to reward even one watch.
That said, Martin (whose previous script work includes the higher-profile 2009 crime drama “Brooklyn’s Finest” and the short-lived 2005 Showtime skein “Sleeper Cell”) does very polished work on modest means, resulting in an impressively resourceful first release for the Alexander brothers’ production shingle Route 17 Entertainment. (A prior feature in which they co-starred, called “Crime Share,” appears to have been completed but hasn’t surfaced yet.)
The relatively little-known sibs have decent screen presence, though the character writing doesn’t give them a lot of dimensionality, even though the breakdown in their blood-brotherhood assumes what ought to be central dramatic importance here — and despite the fact that both have successive voiceover-narration duties. (Easton’s rather stock swaggering-goodfella voice is displaced by Jake’s more earnest, guilt-plagued one somewhere past the midpoint.) Variably familiar supporting actors, including Mantegna, Adam Arkin and Brendon Sexton III, acquit themselves nicely in briefer doses. The most interesting figure and performance here, however, is Malone’s seemingly naive Danneel, even if her character psychology ultimately proves a bit much to swallow.
Good-looking package is pro in all departments, notably the sleek widescreen photography by Michael Fimognari (“Oculus”).