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Gritty gangster tale 'By the Gun' lacks holiday cheer

BY THE GUN (Rated R)

At the cinemas, we’re in the quiet period before the major holiday releases that are just around the corner, where “Annie,” the adorable little orphan, goes up against “The Hobbit,” which is rumored to also involve a lovable smaller person in the central role.

Until then, we have to satisfy our cinematic cravings by revisiting the latest “Hunger Games” or taking in a horror film that a major studio hardly bothered to promote, knowing there’s a built-in audience that flocks to this genre regardless of any consequential artistic qualities.

The other alternative is to catch, if you can, “By the Gun,” a somewhat limited release of a formulaic yet gritty gangster story that could easily find its way to the DVD shelves of your local Walmart before it ever reaches a nearby theater.

“By the Gun” is a crime thriller that so desperately wants to recapture the essence of the graphic, coarse brutality of “Goodfellas” that one of the criminal characters actually mentions the film as a poke to another’s fascination with gangland tropes.

Set in the Boston’s North End community, “By the Gun” takes a jaundiced look at the dwindling empire of the veteran Italian mobsters.

Suitably, Harvey Keitel is Sal, the big capo, who is losing his grip to other wiseguys, while also engaged in turf battles with sleazy criminal kingpin Tony (Ritchie Coster). 

Against the wishes of his disapproving father (Paul Ben-Victor), Ben Barnes’ Nick is a petty thief and street hustler consorting with his thuggish buddy George (Slaine), a trigger-happy goon far too eager to settle minor disputes with violence. Nick is devoted to his younger brother, and wants to help him to afford college.

While George may be fine with strong-arm tactics, Nick is anxious and determined to become a “made man,” willing to pledge faithful allegiance to Sal’s mob at a ceremony that naturally involves a blood oath. This will become Nick’s path to greater financial rewards, which he’ll use to help his family.

To please his new mob boss, Nick volunteers for an apology tour to address perceived slights that have greatly offended the outraged Tony, a psychopath who is greatly motivated to take down Sal and his vicious henchman (nicely played by British actor Toby Jones).

While Harvey Keitel predictably chews the scenery as a wretched, ferocious mafia don, Ben Barnes flails around in his efforts to be the credible tough guy.

Barnes’ Nick comes across as someone unsure and lacking confidence, even tongue-tied at the most unfortunate times, such as when trying to court a rival’s daughter.

Indeed, the romantic angle intrudes in a big way. Leighton Meester’s Ali, a barmaid with ambition, is the daughter of the despicable mobster Tony. She wants nothing to do with the criminal life, and so Nick is at first glance not someone she wants to start dating.

Notwithstanding Ali’s reservations, Nick is fairly persistent and soon the courtship gains traction. Before you know it, Nick becomes anxious to leave behind his criminal ties so that he and Ali can begin a life together.

Of course, as it comes as no surprise to anyone with even a modicum of knowledge of mobster stories, a desire to leave the mob is not an option. No one just walks away unless they end up in a witness protection program.

“By the Gun” may provide some excitement for its rather mechanical approach to the mobster genre.

Certainly, there are thuggish violence and double-cross betrayals that keep the action moving along, if not to the more exalted standards of better gangster films.

The various actors in the mob roles are, at least, sincere in their attempts to appear as if they were auditioning for a “Goodfellas” remake.

They all try hard to deliver the appropriate menace and threatening bravado. Fans of the gangster genre may find that just enough until something better comes along.

One thing for certain is that “By the Gun” won’t be mistaken for a holiday film designed to bring us glad tidings and good cheer.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

 

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