Ironies in the Fire

Image-conscious bad guys help make Gun Shy a screwball comedy with weight. Scream 3 is an in-joke-drenched blood bath. 

Gun Shy
Directed by Eric Blakeney
Buena Vista Pictures

Scream 3
Directed by Wes Craven
Miramax Films 

As Charlie, a traumatized undercover drug agent in the comic thriller Gun Shy, the big, lumbering Liam Neeson must move quickly and make himself inconspicuous—which is kind of like a giraffe trying to hide in a toilet stall. When he’s inevitably spotted, you can see the acceptance of death in his eyes and hear it in the angry, basso profundo rumbles of his bowels. If Charlie were played by a dynamo like Michael Keaton or someone merely life-size, the movie’s farcical situations might seem routine. But Eric Blakeney, the director and writer, takes the rhythm of the film from Neeson’s ineffable Hibernian melancholy. So Gun Shy is a grave screwball comedy. Its gags aren’t just hilarious—they have a weighty, plaintive soul.

More than a decade ago, Blakeney was a writer on the first season of the TV series Wiseguy, in the amazing year that gave us Ray Sharkey as gangster Sonny Steelgrave and Kevin Spacey as paranoid mastermind Mel Profitt. Wiseguy was about undercover jitters, too. Agent Vinnie Terranova (Ken Wahl) was forever getting too close to the charismatic monsters he was working to ensnare, which left him hurting big-time and threatening to bail on his job. Wiseguy has evidently been percolating in Blakeney’s system: It has evolved into a psychocomedy in which the hero is so rattled by the prospect of being found out that he can barely manage his innards. On a plane, he meets a psychiatrist who invites him into group therapy, and his anxiety about maintaining a façade every second strikes a resonant chord with the middle-aged men in business suits who compare his job to “a life of permanent job interviews. You’re on your best, phoniest behavior.”

Gun Shy is another in a spate of works that ironize or feminize a macho genre. We’re in the land of The Sopranos and Analyze This (1999), in which men of violence are impelled (often by their own bodies, which collapse under intense Type A stress) to explore their feelings of vulnerability. But Gun Shy proves that there’s plenty of psychosexual material still to be mined. Poor Charlie has waking nightmares of being tortured on a large platter of watermelon while his partner is killed with a gunshot to the buttocks. Then he gets a shot to the buttocks himself—a barium enema administered by a dizzy free spirit named Judy (Sandra Bullock), who further softens him up by making him work with manure in her garden and listen to Zen parables about letting go. The classic screwball comedies are all about letting go of sexual inhibitions and going with the flow. But I can’t remember when relaxing one’s bowels has been the literal subject.

The man who throws Charlie’s bowels into an uproar is Fulvio (Oliver Platt), a Mafia thug with a hair-trigger temper and dark eyes that can reportedly see into a man’s soul. Fulvio glowers at Charlie but can’t see anything, since Charlie has been popping tranquilizers and is so mellow he can barely sit upright. But Fulvio has his own inner woes, and Platt gives the part a lyrical sadness that dovetails perfectly with Neeson’s. He doesn’t want to be a clichéd Mafioso—he wants to tend his tomato patch. In fact, the bad guys in Gun Shy have become so sensitized by media depictions of people like themselves that they bridle at being treated like stereotypes even as they act like them. They don’t know how they really feel. To stay alive, Charlie must keep the various outlaws from drawing their guns as a substitute for owning up to their own insecurity.

The actors are all marvelous, especially José Zúñiga as the chief Colombian drug lord, a yuppie touchy about his image as a barbarian, and Andy Lauer (who looks a bit like Roddy McDowall) is an unctuous Wall Streeter whose specialty is glad-handing psychopaths. In Speed 2 and Forces of Nature, Sandra Bullock’s adorable impulsiveness was rammed down our throats, but here she’s fresh and sexy and unforced, using her wiggly softness as a foil for Neeson’s golemlike rigidity. (Bullock also co-produced the film, making this a double triumph.) All that’s missing from the movie is an ending. A good screwball comedy doesn’t seem finished without an equilibrium-restoring denouement; this one just peters out.

Blakeney’s style can seem deliberate and square, but I prefer to think he’s going for Zen deadpan. The cinematographer, Tom Richmond, contemplates the angles of skyscrapers and the sea of red taillights along an avenue at night. He gives New York an airy, European feel, full of wide boulevards and vistas. The film is unusually gorgeous for an action movie—but then, few action movies feature the killers and their girlfriends and wives bumping into one another at something called the Fantasy Home Show, which showcases interiors for dream houses. When the men assemble for their final gunfight, Rolfe Kent’s score evokes Ennio Morricone and spaghetti westerns. But Gun Shy is invoking mythic gunfighters only to mock and finally discard that image—for a new world of gays and gardening where there’s never the need for an enema.

Scream 3 also unspools in a world where people measure their lives against movies. In fact, they think of little but gutbucket hack-’em-ups—that porny, mechanical subgenre in which attractive kids get carved up by masked or unseen villains and the spurt of blood replaces the cum shot. The characters joke about how they shouldn’t walk alone down dark corridors, and then they walk alone down dark corridors and get stalked and slashed to ribbons—the irony coming to a conclusive end when they hemorrhage. This is the sort of film that The Blair Witch Project, which put you in the head of the victim instead of the omniscient giggling spectator, triumphantly staked itself against.

That said, Scream 3 is a lot more fun than Blair Witch, and it’s more relaxed and goofy than its two predecessors—a farcical bloodbath. The jokes come right from the start, the camera pulling back on a piece of the “Hollywood” sign, with the “O” like a scream, and before long a subjective camera is moving in on a beautiful blonde in a shower. We keep waiting to be told that we’re watching a movie-within-a-movie, but Scream3is the movie-within-the-movie. Well, there’s another movie-within-a-movie: Stab 3, the third in the fictional trilogy based on the murders we saw in the first film. This time, the now-Los Angeles-based surviving characters of the first two films—poor, clueless Sidney (Neve Campbell), dweebish he-man Dewey (David Arquette), and nervy newswoman Gail (Courtney Cox Arquette)—get to watch their fictional counterparts get wasted for real on sets that look like the streets of their old hometown.

The director, Wes Craven, understands that a movie this jampacked with film references and red herrings and irritating false scares wouldn’t have much impact if the violence weren’t strong—if the big knives didn’t actually go crunch into the soft bodies. The murders aren’t quite as sadistically protracted here as they are in the other two pictures, but that’s not saying much: They’re still hard-core. It’s too bad that Craven doesn’t have the geometric wizardry of Hitchcock or De Palma or Spielberg. There are some brilliant setups in Scream 3, especially a sequence in which Sidney is stalked through the set of her old house, but they don’t have the climactic zing you get when a director constructs a scene as a kind of spatial-temporal slapstick routine, like the crop-dusting chase in North by Northwest (1959) or the escalator shootout in Carlito’s Way (1993). When a movie has no core—when it’s just a bag of tricks—you live for a few visual flourishes.

Kevin Williamson didn’t write the screenplay this time, and that’s a plus. The new guy, Ehren Kruger (of last year’s Arlington Road), attempts to give the trilogy existential underpinnings—to suggest that its subject isn’t just bored teen sadists who’ve seen too many horror movies, but how no one knows who anyone is under the skin. Nice try. More important, he gives it a ton of funny lines and nifty in-jokes, none of which I’ll spoil by quoting. Scream 3 has some of the flavor of the classic comedy International House (1933), with stars from various Miramax or indie or genre pictures popping up to do cameos, along with guest victims such as Jenny McCarthy as a dumb blond starlet and Patrick Warburton as a full-of-himself bodyguard. (It could be called International HorrorHouse.) As the obnoxious actress cast as Gail in the Stab movies, Parker Posey has never been wittier: The scenes in which she dogs and echoes and tops her “real-life” counterpart are comic bliss. Actually, I’d rather look at Posey these days than Courtney Cox Arquette, who has lost so much weight that she’s beginning to resemble Bette Davis in her 80s—a toothpick demon. For that matter, most of the cast is so anorexic looking it’s a wonder there’s blood in this picture at all.