One of the more amusing impressions given by Hollywood is that Boston is a sort of giant schizophrenic public house where academics and violent white trash begrudgingly coexist. Places like Charlestown, South Boston a/k/a ‘Southie’ and Dorchester – bastions of Irish white trash up there with Bridgeport in Chicago and Bridgeport, Connecticutt – have tourists worried. Well, unless you’re black—in which case all bets are off because Boston’s police force still thinks it’s 1945—there’s no need to fret. Boston is the great American-Anglo wannabe. You never run out of academics in Beantown and each institute has its own police force allowed a kind of carte blanche which can become frightening in practice as curfew approaches. No big deal, really, it’s just that movies like Mystic River, The Town, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Departed and Gone Baby Gone have painted the city with an exceedingly broad brush, giving the impression that all the local Irish-American and Italian Americans have turned this small, fairly clean, very livable if expensive eastern city into a violent sewer with concrete and lights.
By the Gun inherits its gene pool from the aforementioned crime thrillers. As you might expect, there’s lots of rapid-fire, macho dialog and the usual obsession with ethnicity, family and the North End neighborhood most of the action takes place in. The screenwriter, Emilio Mauro, often has characters talk over each other, hoping, I guess, to realize a more Sidney Lumet-like, ‘rude,’ naturalistic kind of down-home Noo-Yawk-style conversation where people break in on each other a lot. Yet Lumet, in movies like Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Prince of the City (1981) had big fish to fry amidst all the cop/mobster/politician rhetoric. Unfortunately, Nicky Tortano goes with absurd notions of Sicilian and Neapolitan gentlemen acting like street corner comic book Robin Hoods in some mythic era before hard drugs came in to ruin the pretty picture. Naïve professional criminals are up there with hookers with hearts of gold and the Ghandi inside every Buddha.
That may be the Mauro’s point here, of course. The small-time mobsters in this film have no real realm to rule. Time has passed everybody by already, especially the young ones. So we enter the world of Nicky Tortano (Ben Barnes). Nicky is charming and devious, having bootstrapped his way up through the family business, he catches the eye of mob boss Sally Vitaglia (Harvey Keitel). Yet these are not men of their word and Nicky must be just as slippery as they are. Things are always bent and messy. His best friend George (the Boston rapper Slaine, who seems to have had at least a cameo in every Beantown gangster movie made in the last decade) wants to murder a rival mob boss, Tony Matazano (Ritchie Coster). Too bad Nicky just happens to be shtupping Coster’s white-hot daughter, the exquisitely beautiful Leighton Meester.
It takes about 45 minutes for By the Gun to build up a head of steam while the cast awkwardly plays their blue-collar roots up to the hilt. Some blame has to be apportioned to director James Mottern, even though I must admit I was a huge fan of his first feature, Trucker (2008), an amazing low budget independent he wrote and edited himself. How he came to become captain of this ship is probably a story unto itself.
Once the shootouts begin, Slaine, a real Bostonian at least, comes off better than Barnes, who is rather good, but a bit too pretty and too British to pull Nicky off completely as he keeps letting his accent slip. Veterans like Keitel, Paul Ben-Victor and William Bloomfield, do a good job, but the studio’s reasoning in using British actors like Coster, Barnes and the Shakespearean journeyman Toby Jones, who trembles a lot playing a psychopathic killer named Jerry is impossible to ascertain.
I’ll give away no more about the plot, but the last third of the film almost manages to make up for the blah first two-thirds. So, if you buy a ticket, hang in there!