Gunshy is a 1998 noir/crime drama film directed by Jeff Celentano and written by Larry Gross. It stars William Petersen, Diane Lane, and Michael Wincott. I love this film, it’s a great little sleeper film. It is about a failed journalist who gets caught up in the crime underworld of Irish and Italian gangsters. It’s got this cool, gritty vibe to it, set in Atlantic City, New Jersey, about ordinary people caught up in small-time gangster life.
Petersen plays Jake, a journalist who just got fired from his journalism job and found his woman cheating on him. Petersen is great at playing damaged, rough types who seem on the brink of losing their mind and becoming the villain (Manhunter, To Live and Die in L.A.). Jake is saved by a beatdown by Frankie (Michael Wincott), a hired heavy for an Irish gangster named Pops. Frankie is hired to shake down and intimidate people who owe his boss money, and uses his raspy voice and love of violence to a scary effect. Frankie takes Jake home to be bandaged up by his nurse wife Melissa (Diane Lane). There, Jake immediately falls for Melissa, and is hatching a plan to steal her away from Frankie, which she refuses over and over again.
Frankie is intrigued by Jake being able to withstand pain and grit through life, as well as his intellectual knowledge of books. So he makes a deal with Jake. Jake will teach him about books (most notably, Moby Dick, as the themes of the book will come to reflect the themes of the film), and Frankie will give him a job in his crew and give him street smarts. Jake reluctantly agrees, and is often witness to Frankie’s night and day personality. When being around Jake and Melissa, he is calm, quiet, likable, and friendly. But when dealing with someone who owes his boss money, he is cold, violent, ruthless, and dangerous. Jake asks Frankie if he enjoys doing what he does. Frankie says, “I like hurting people who deserve to get hurt.”
Wincott is known for playing a villain in films like The Crow and The Three Musketeers, and his raspy voice, sinewy frame, and long dark hair made him perfect as an antagonist. In this role, he isn’t a villain, but not necessarily a good guy, either. He is a man who has street smarts but not book smarts, and feels he owes his life to the mob because they saved him when he was a youth, so that he can never leave, out of fear of betraying Pops, his father figure. Wincott is great as Frankie, as a thug with a conscience, and infuses him with sympathy even when he is being absolutely ruthless towards people who owe money to his boss.
Jake and Melissa share a warm connection, like two working-class stiffs in love, and it isn’t long before they are sleeping together. It seems like a really bad choice, given that Frankie is attracted to violence, and would hurt or kill Jake if he found out about this. Frankie doesn’t have any real friends, and the betrayal would break his heart.
As Melissa, Diane Lane is excellent in this film, it is an underrated role for her. She excels at playing tough, damaged, working-class women who have been through tough times in life and preserved. It is a combination of her stunning looks, her deep voice, and her maturity in roles that creates this fantastic combination. Other actresses like Maria Bello, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Ashley Judd also share this talent as well.
The film progresses into a finale that will test Frankie’s resolve to keep his conscience clean in his line of work, as well as Jake’s ability to keep a secret (not only the cheating one) that would devastate his relationship with Frankie if found out. The film’s finale with a big job is a bit underwhelming, but the character development and resolution is thrilling and well-executed dramatically.
I recommend the film if you are interested in noir dramas and B-level thrillers. It is a hidden gem to be appreciated and enjoyed.