A creditable effort to lend some uncommon depth and humanity to the crime genre, “Gunshy” is a well-written and acted tale of betrayal and eventual moral clarity. A schematic but interesting play of bookish knowledge versus street smarts as repped by the friendship of a writer and a small-time Atlantic City mobster, this engaging indie lacks the star wattage and dramatic electricity to create more than a modest theatrical profile and might find a more receptive audience as a cable special and on video.
Written by Larry Gross a decade ago, yarn has the seedy, threatening trappings of innumerable crime films, but carves out its own distinctive identity by virtue of a central triangle that will appeal to thoughtful audiences more than to mainstream mayhem seekers.
Unhinged when he catches his girlfriend in the sack with another guy, New York journalist Jake Bridges (William Petersen) heads for Atlantic City, “where they like losers,” to go on a nonstop bender. When he mouths off to the wrong guy (Meat Loaf) in a bar, Jake is on the verge of getting his guts spilled all over the boardwalk when he’s rescued by Frankie McGregor (Michael Wincott), a runner for a local gang run by a sadistic, wheelchair-bound Irishman named Lange (Michael Byrne).
Frankie’s human kindness notwithstanding, Jake remains intent upon drinking himself into oblivion until his interest is aroused by Frankie’s comely girlfriend Melissa (Diane Lane). Just as Frankie has taken a personal interest in rehabilitating Jake from his drunken stupor, Jake becomes inspired to elevate Melissa beyond her station as a lowly nurse. But when Jake bluntly expresses his interest in her, Melissa protests that she’s very happy with her man, and Jake is driven to great lengths, such as deliberately injuring himself, to create excuses to see her at the hospital.
At the same time, the gregarious Frankie covets the smart writer’s companionship. A working class type with limited horizons, Frankie would sincerely like to better himself, and his almost childlike earnestness and eagerness to learn seem to strike a chord in Jake, who suggests a reading list for his pal beginning with “Moby Dick.” In exchange, Frankie urges Jake to learn the ropes with the gang, and the pair start making Frankie’s collection rounds together.
The dynamics change, and inevitably become more volatile, when Jake and Melissa finally get it on and when Jake is brought more deeply and irrevocably into the gang’s criminal activity despite Lange’s suspicion that the newcomer is “too smart” for anyone else’s good. Frankie is revealed to possess the soul of a savior, having also, it turns out, brought Melissa back to life after she hit bottom some years back. This makes it all the more difficult for her and Jake to betray their unsuspecting friend, but, if she doesn’t, she knows she’ll be stuck in Atlantic City forever. For his part, Jake is able to start writing again with Melissa in his life.
Standard-issue tensions among thieves erupt in the wake of a heist that yields unexpected dividends, leading to a bloodbath from which Jake and Frankie barely escape. Having come this far, Jake can hide his duplicity from his friend no longer, but a couple of end-of-the-game twists put a moral spin on the participants’ fates that prove edifying even if a bit pat.
Gross’ considered, mostly successful attempt to invest superficially shifty, intention-hiding characters with noble underlying traits receives a great assist from the three leads. Always an arresting presence, Petersen keeps Jake interesting by effectively suggesting a man of many layers, but never indicating how many more there are to discover. Wincott disarmingly plays against his sinister screen persona to fashion an outwardly tough guy with a deep supply of goodness aching to express itself. Lane sensitively portrays a sexy woman of low self-esteem who dares to raise her sights.
Jeff Celentano’s direction is responsive to the diverse values in the material, bringing them out gradually. Off-season Atlantic City is captured in all its grim gaudiness by lenser John Aronson and production designer Randal Earnest, and other tech aspects are accomplished.