There are a good number of times when you can watch a bad movie and notice what could have made it worthwhile. Elements of the story that could have been explored better, techniques that would have made it more exciting, characters that had no real purpose, etc. are all often noticed. By the Gun is such a film. Here is one of the laziest and dullest “Boston Crime” movies that you can see — one where the stakes are low, the characters are uninteresting, and the film is not worth watching.
Our lead is Nick Tortano (Ben Barnes), a wannabe gangster under the tutelage of the aging Sal (Harvey Keitel), because names like “Sal, Vito, Vinny, Tony, Joe, and so on are all prevalent in movies like this. I wish I could tell you more about the plot but the film is so uneventful and yet strangely convoluted that I wouldn’t even know where to start. The first half — or perhaps slightly more than half — mostly just has Nick and his buddy George (Slaine) going around town doing gangster things. Then there’s murder, betrayal, and soon enough Nick has to decide what really matters in life, or whatever.
Along the way, Nick gets a girlfriend, Ali (Leighton Meester), who is perhaps the only female in the film with more than a single line — not that her role exists for any other reason than to drive Nick’s character; she doesn’t exactly get anything to do — and there’s some business with Nick’s father (Paul Ben-Victor) and brother (Kenny Wormald), but trying to recall why any of it matters is too difficult. Hardly any of it is important and it all exists so Nick has something to do. You know how gangster movies work — and if you don’t, this isn’t the one to start with.
Directed by James Mottern — whose previously only feature was Trucker — By the Gun is talky and uninvolving. Scenes go on and on and relay nothing of importance except for how the value of profanity decreases with its frequency. You know how so-called “Valley Girls” punctuate their sentences with the word “like”? Ditto the gangsters in this film the F-word. It’s tiresome, and when long diatribes do that and don’t really go anywhere, it’s incredibly easy to stop paying attention.
How about that whole “way the bad movie could be improved” thing that I mentioned earlier? Well, part of the movie wants to be about how the gangster business is changing, and that guys like Sal are a dying breed, and so on. A focus on that might’ve made the film interesting. Instead, By the Gun simply becomes generic. It doesn’t seem to care about things that might intrigue the viewer.
If there’s one kind of enjoyable thing to watch in By the Gun, it’s seeing actors who are decidedly not from Boston try to sound like they’ve very much from Boston. I mean, there are some natives in the cast like Slaine and Kenny Wormald — and Harvey Keitel would fit right in if he didn’t sleepwalk through the role — but then you’ve got British actors like Toby Jones, Ritchie Coster, and our lead, Ben Barnes. That’s just kind of inherently fun, isn’t it? Knowing that they’re putting on an accent and that they don’t at all sound like that? They’re actually pretty good at it. They don’t overdo it like actors often do when they’re trying to sound like they’re from Boston, so that’s a plus.
I guess watching Prince Caspian himself smoking and swearing and killing is also fun, if you’re the sort of person who holds onto actors’ previous roles and watching them play against that is enjoyable. I guess it could be. Barnes doesn’t really work as our leading man outside of doing a pretty good accent, as he’s about as engaging on-screen as the oft-used example of a block of wood.
By the Gun is a generic, lazy, uninvolving, and absolutely worth skipping. It does absolutely nothing for — or with — the Boston Crime genre of movies. It had potential to explore themes and ideas that these films often don’t, but then it decided to just be about nothing in particular and tell one of the lowest-stakes stories you’ll be able to see. It’s almost worth seeing to see how bad its plot is and how shallow its characters are, but it’d take you almost two hours of your life for that, and it’s just not worth it.