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American Gun (2003)
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by Chris Parry

"Bowling for Coburn: Big Jim's last role proves worth seeing."
4 stars

The gun control debate is always going to prove contentious ground for a filmmaker, but when that filmmaker is more experienced in the field of romantic comedy than serious social and political commentary, chances are good that the resulting film is going to piss seriously someone off. So credit where it's due to Alan Jacobs, the writer/director of "Nina Takes a Lover," "Just One Night" and the newly released "American Gun," who somehow manages to create a film that will piss off both gun nuts and those on the other end of the spectrum. Jacobs opts to have his cake and eat it too with this slow-moving drama, but perhaps the only way to really address this controversial issue without any perceived bias is to straddle the fence and throw in the occasional MacGuffin to keep people guessing as to your own particular opinion.

Coburn is Martin, an aging grandfather, getting on in years and trying to deal with retirement. When his daughter (Virginia Madsen) comes to stay, the relationship shows itself to be far from perfect, but in a heartbeat, everything changes for the worst when darling daughter is shot and killed by persons unknown.

What *is* known is the source of the bullet. A handgun is found, and when the police's case comes up blank, the gun and all available evidence are requested by the grieving father, so he can continue the hunt for the missing killer. Thus begins a manhunt, stretching from coast to coast, where a clearly ailing, totally depressed old man tracks previous owners of the gun, from factory to dealer to first owner and onwards, through more hands than you'd rightly expect, with a view to finding the final owner.

Along the way, Martin seeks out his wayward granddaughter (Alexandra Holden), fights with the wife (Barbara Bain), does a lot of thinking about the old days and learns a thing or two about himself. It's that last part of the journey that proves most valuable in "American Gun," as Coburn breathes the sort of brooding, thinking life into his character that only a true legend of the screen can. Indeed, there are times that you forget that Coburn is acting and you start to see perhaps a little of the man himself creep in. The arthritic hands. The runaway brows. The snarky wit. When "American Gun" is about an old man trying to figure out the world, it's an outstanding film.

So right about now, you all want to know the answer to the big question, right? That is, what stance does "American Gun" take on gun control? The answer is complex, because it never really does take a stand. The gun apologists will claim that the film is simplistic, assuming that every owner of this gun was short term, irresponsible, violent and ultimately tragically impacted by it. On the other hand, the anti-gun lobby will claim that the film goes the other way, showing some owners using the gun to defend themselves, and demonstrating the value of armoury in situations such as wartime.

In this case, the gun apologists are probably closer to the truth than the peacekeepers. Jacobs does take an easy option, portraying this 'average gun' as being a tool of the devil that always ends up used for nastiness, and is almost always sold or passed on to someone who is just no darn good. In reality, most guns will sit in a drawer and never fire off a shot for decades or longer, but this unlucky tool seems to fire bullets more often than your average British commando.

Of course, Jacobs would argue with this opinion, saying that the point of the film isn't the value of handguns or otherwise; it's that we don't know how to control who gets their hands on those guns. Again, this is a weak argument, as the central thrust of the film is clearly that 'guns be bad, wouldn't it be better if we didn't have any of them, then Coburn's hot daughter would still be around and his hot granddaughter wouldn't be a stripper and...'

And hey, I'm personally down with the 'lose the guns' ideal. Had "American Gun" decided to take that tack and back it up a little, the performances and mood of the film would have made it an unmissable, if controversial, cinema event.

But it isn't that, at least for anyone but Coburn-historians and indie film geeks. "American Gun" just tries to do too much, throwing in too many surprises, too many U-turns, and not nearly enough decisiveness as it pertains to the central topic. While the final act proves surprising, it also serves to leave the viewer wondering how much of what he's seen has been real, and how much was simply a shell game.

Likewise, one also wonders whether Coburn's involvement in this low-budget flick was dependent on the acceptance of his 'input' into how his character played out on screen, and how much actual screen time he enjoyed in the process. At times, it seems that the camera wants to go elsewhere, and the audience is willing it to, but instead we watch Coburn quietly ruminating at the evils of life, the enigmatic nature of God, and the strange sights and sounds of Americana when all we really want from him is to get off the freaking train and find us a killer.

Coburn's performance is admittedly strong, and very much out of character as his gnarled hands and general gentle demeanor turn him into an unassuming grandpappy rather than the usual swinging superspy or swaggering bad man. But even a great performance really needs a good editor to fine-tune it, and the pacing of "American Gun" is just too deliberate, and the twists just too out of left field, to get the most out of what's been caught by the lens.

At times, "American Gun" seems lost. At other times, it seems inspired. Somewhere in the middle is a director jumping through a hoop too many, an actor telling a director not to cut just yet (or the other way around), and an audience that will give respect to the effort, and the great man in the middle, but probably coming away wishing for a little more.

That "American Gun" will be debated is without doubt. That it will be a talking point for post-screening audiences is a given. But, that it will be remembered in history as an important film is possibly an idea that would depend on your own personal viewpoint. As the last stand of a great warrior of Hollywood, "American Gun" is a worthy film. It's at least tried something different, taken a topic that is far easier to shy away from, and put itself out there to be yelled at by those who would choose to do so. For that alone, it deserves your time.

"American Gun" opened in Portland on July 22, 2003, and didn't set the town alight, but it most certainly deserves to be seen by a wide audience. If you see it advertised locally, wager $7 that Coburn can give you a return on your investment and take an open mind. Of all the films on offer in this crowded cinematic marketplace, "American Gun" tries to do more, with less, than most any other. In attempting to deliver an important kick up the collective can, "American Gun" gives the gun control debate a real shot in the arm (no pun intended). Whether it succeeds or fails as a story is largely irrelevant - it at least tries to be great, which is something that's worthy of respect, praise and screen time.

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originally posted: 07/26/03 09:16:06
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2002 Seattle Film Festival. For more in the 2002 Seattle Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

5/20/10 Strom Spiegel A powerful if misunderstood film.A brilliant character study,not a political manifesto. 4 stars
8/07/05 good buddy Movie is no good. Unrealistic 2 stars
6/08/04 Fred Wouldn't recommend 3 stars
1/21/04 Walter Beatty It was a good movie, kept me watching. I liked the twist at the end. 4 stars
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  22-Jul-2003 (R)
  DVD: 17-Feb-2004



Directed by
  Alan Jacobs

Written by
  Alan Jacobs

  James Coburn
  Virginia Madsen
  Barbara Bain
  Alexandra Holden
  Ryan Locke
  Jason Winther

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