By the Gun is the latest entry in the Boston mob sub-genre of crime films, with Brit Ben Barnes wrapping his tongue around a Boston accent to play an Italian-American “made man” who’s slightly less sleazy than his cohorts. “Slightly” in that Barnes’ Nick Tortano has a heart and a conscious, and he actually feels regret over his wrong-doings.
The film focuses on Nick as he rises in the organization despite the fact that to most people there’s no glory in this decade to being a made man. Nick’s ambitious and smart, and eventually earns the respect of mob boss Salvatore Vitaglia (Harvey Keitel). However, life in a mob drama never goes smoothly and complicating matters in this particular film are Nick’s uncontrollable best friend (played by hip hop MC/Boston native Slaine) and Nick’s budding relationship with rival crime boss Tony Matazano’s (Ritchie Coster) gorgeous daughter, Ali (Leighton Meester). And because this is a mob drama, you know from the opening frames that Nick’s in for a world of pain and hardship given his choice of associates.
While By the Gun does incorporate much of what you’d expect from films of its ilk, it’s also surprisingly self-aware. At the same time that it’s using tried-and-true formulas from mob films past, writer Emilio Mauro melds into the script the fact the characters have grown up watching those films and understand they’re in large part caricatures of movie characters. It’s an interesting twist on a sub-genre that’s often too lazy to attempt a re-invention of the wheel or even a small insertion of an original idea.
Also working in By the Gun‘s favor is its handling of mob life in general. It’s not portrayed as sexy and all-powerful but instead it’s shown as a thing of the past, a throwback to a bygone era. In the insulated world in which By the Gun‘s mobsters exist, there’s still a hierarchy and a code to conform to. However, the outside world looking in isn’t envious of this messy, outmoded criminal world.
Ben Barnes was an interesting choice for the lead in a Boston-based crime film, but any doubts about his ability to handle both the accent and the genre are quickly put aside as he’s convincing as a guy who grows up longing for acceptance in a world in which “live by the gun, die by the gun” is all too prophetic. Barnes isn’t just that guy from Narnia, even though that’s what he’s best known for, and if you haven’t seen him in other films put Killing Bono at the top of your list to screen for a better look at what he’s capable of.
As Barnes’ two main co-stars, Leighton Meester and Slaine are strong in supporting roles. The chemistry between Barnes & Meester and Barnes & Slaine is solid, and both Meester and Slaine are involved in some of the film’s more memorable scenes. By the Gun does have its share of stereotypical mob movie characters, however director James Mottern was able to fill one-dimensional roles with actors (including Harvey Keitel and Toby Jones) who elevate them above cliched mobster characters.
Smartly written and shot, By the Gun is an above average mob thriller that colors outside the lines. With Barnes in the lead, By the Gun is a terrific second effort from director James Mottern following his critically acclaimed directorial debut with 2008’s Trucker.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, sexual content, nudity, language throughout and some drug use.
Running time: 110 minutes
DVD release: January 20, 2015