What to Watch Verdict
Whatever appeal this onetime Black List script had aged poorly over the decade leading to its eventual development.
💥 As supporting characters, Travis Fimmel and Emmanuelle Chriqui make a better pair of doomed lovers than the two at the center of this story.
💥 Director Collin Schiffli apes Baz Luhrmann's 'Romeo + Juliet' style with none of the substance or subtlety.
💥 The script by Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari outpaces the price tag of the production with its ambition, resulting in some reductive and uninspired creative shortcuts.
Die in a Gunfight feels like it was made by people who thought William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet was too nuanced. Based on a screenplay that made the infamous Black List before languishing in development hell for more than seven years, this updated “star-crossed lovers” riff will undoubtedly generate curiosity from audiences as much for its storied history as its justifiably timeless premise. But to observe that director Collin Schiffli is no Baz Luhrmann and stars Diego Bonita and Alexandra Daddario no Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes would be an understatement, even if the script didn’t try to re-frame the story in a world equally inspired by John Wick and scanning the CNN search engine results for “corporate espionage.” Truth be told, Bonita and Daddario are mostly fine as trust-fund lovers navigating their parents’ petty rivalries, but Schiffli’s budget-Drive aesthetic and meandering focus does them no favors in this comic book cliff’s notes version of one of the most enduring romances in literary history.
Boneta (Monster Hunter) plays Ben, the ne’er-do-well heir of the Gibbon fortune and all of the baggage that it entails: his father Henry (Stuart Hughes) has spent his entire life sneering at his rival William Rathcart (John Ralston) from across moneyed rooms, and expects the young man to do the same. But after falling head over heels for Rathcart’s daughter Mary (Daddario, We Summon the Darkness), only to find their love denied by both sets of parents, Ben has settled into the role of club hopper and troublemaker, with Mukul (Wade Allain-Marcus) along for the ride as co-conspirator and sometime babysitter. Meanwhile, Mary was sent off to Paris for school and their mutual correspondence confiscated or destroyed, so both of them have developed a grudge against the other by the time they unexpectedly cross paths at a cocktail party.
After watching her receive a marriage proposal from Terrence Uberahl (Justin Chatwin), a bodyguard who fell in love with Mary after secretly being assigned to keep an eye on her, Ben gets soused with a couple of libidinous oddballs, Wayne (Travis Fimmel) and Barbie (Emmanuelle Chriqui), and wakes up hungover in his own bed as Mary takes care of him. The two of them slowly reconnect, and realizing they were both deceived by their parents, reconcile their complicated past. But now, years after first falling in love, there are more eyes on them than ever, with two disapproving fathers, a jealous, lovestruck bodyguard, and a voracious newsmedia hungrily surveying the messy drama they’re sowing. But as the Rathcarts contend not only with this tabloid-worthy reunion but a corporate whistleblower who might bring their fortunes crumbling down, Ben and Mary choose to pursue their romance and run off together like they’d always planned — which may or may not be enough to save them from a legacy that seems destined to end in violence.
Before Boneta and Daddario agreed to play these roles, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson and Kaya Scodelario were among the actors attached to the script by Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari when it first garnered attention back in 2010 — and it’s clear even now that there was something intriguing, at some point, anyway, about the way these lovers’ story unfolded. What’s also clear is how Barrer and Ferrari’s ideas anticipated a lot of the questions audiences would have about this world, even if the production could not afford to bring them fully to life. There’s nothing wrong with using a comic book framework to establish back stories and reveal details about characters, but what eventually happens is that those details are reduced to footnotes or affectations that never mean anything deeper, if they mean anything at all. For example, Ben has spent his entire life getting into fights, and seemingly intentionally losing them, but has decided that what he wants most is to die in a gunfight; what precisely does any of this mean except to telegraph the eventual title of the film? Mary, on the other hand, is framed by a lot of “gilded cage” rhetoric, but she has almost no identity except as preternaturally beautiful rich girl waiting for Ben to sweep her off her feet for a second time.
Every scene has about twice as much air and half as much urgency as it needs; Schiffli relies heavily on Ian Hultquist’s synth-heavy, Johnny Jewel-derivative score to provide atmosphere that the conspicuously inexpensive production cannot, and meanders through exchanges of dialogue that should be building tension to a finale uniting the parts and players in this labyrinth. It makes Ben and Mary feel like supporting characters in a larger story that the filmmakers couldn’t afford to explore, while actors like Fimmel and Chatwin try to emphasize eccentricities of their characters to give their roles more weight. And particularly in a landscape on TV and film absolutely overpowered with stories of rich teenagers, their rebellion, and even their forbidden love, feels profoundly cliched and unexceptional.
Again, it’s hard to blame Bonita and Daddario for failing to breathe life into these characters or their relationship, but as a couple or as individuals, they’re both pretty and lifeless on screen. This is a movie where the only thing that matters is what’s happening on screen, and neither of them seem to have a single deeper thought about what preceded the moment, or what’s to come. Chatwin has always been skilled (if that’s the right phrase for it) in playing selfish, overconfident, one-dimensional characters, but like the leads, he’s been given latitude here as Terrence that does not benefit either him or the film. And Fimmel and Chriqui seem to be arriving from a world adjacent to this one where their characters’ palpable affection forms the nucleus of a much more interesting and believable story. But the remainder of the cast adds no depth to the sordid history shared between the Gibbons and Rathcarts, leaving Billy Crudup’s smug narration to do the heavy lifting of explaining motivations and meanings that the action on screen cannot sustain.
Ironically, what this film does most vividly is underscore the timelessness of Romeo and Juliet as a story – one for which every generation can and should have their own version. And maybe back in 2010 when it languished promisingly on the Black List, Barrer and Ferrari’s iteration offered something that particular group of coming-of-age viewers had not seen. But in pop-culture years, the time between then and now feels as far as the 16th century when it debuted, much less when Luhrmann jazzed it up in the ‘90s. What are the obstacles that teenagers face now, the biases and battles that young people inherit, and the values, ideas and relationships they fight to protect? Because “love in a time of corporate malfeasance” feels like pretty low hanging fruit, even if the two people involved are as luminous on screen as these two. Ultimately, there’s so much to explore within the language and the relationships and the legacy of the source material that it feels hard to adapt it wrong, much less with the very real problems of contemporary young people to project upon them; but that’s why Die in a Gunfight makes such a uniquely convincing case for a remake or update of Shakespeare’s play — because it’s a one-stop-shopping study of what not to do.
Todd Gilchrist is a Los Angeles-based film critic and entertainment journalist with more than 20 years’ experience for dozens of print and online outlets, including Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Entertainment Weekly and Fangoria. An obsessive soundtrack collector, sneaker aficionado and member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, Todd currently lives in Silverlake, California with his amazing wife Julie, two cats Beatrix and Biscuit, and several thousand books, vinyl records and Blu-rays.
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