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A SINGLE SHOT

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Despite the title, there are two decisive rifle shots in David M. Rosenthal’s film of Matthew F. Jones’s novel—one at near the start and another at the end. But the mirroring of a destructive bullet with a redemptive one merely points up the schematic quality of this slow-moving, unsurprising piece of noirish backwoods pulp.

“A Single Shot” opens with shaggy John Moon (Sam Rockwell), an inveterate poacher, venturing out into the nature preserve beside which he lives in a dilapidated trailer looking for deer. But when he fires into a rustling in the brush, what he hits—and kills—is a girl (Christie Burke); and when he searches her belongings, he finds a pile of cash. He conceals the corpse and appropriates the money, hoping to use it to win back his estranged wife Jess (Kelly Reilly), who’s left along with their young son and taken a job as a waitress in the town diner.

Of course that plan goes almost immediately awry. John promptly uses some of the dough to hire a sleazy lawyer (William H. Macy, doing a vaudeville turn by affecting a limp to go along with his terrible wardrobe and his hideous toupee) to try to derail Jess’s attempt to secure a divorce—thereby leaving a trail that the girl’s crooked partners can easily follow right back to him. It’s not long before they show up in the form of Obadiah (Joe Anderson), an ex-con who sports tattoos and a mean attitude, and his even more menacing colleague Waylon (Jason Isaacs).

There are a couple of other characters embroiled in the plot, too—notably Simon (Jeffrey Wright), John’s booze-ridden old friend who serves as the source of numbingly protracted plot exposition late in the game, and Abbie (Ophelia Lovibond), a horse-riding girl who lives next door and serves as a damsel-in-distress at a climactic point.

But with the exception of Rockwell, whom Rosenthal gives plenty of opportunity to create a character—even if Moon isn’t a particularly charismatic one, as he stumbles from mistake to mistake—the cast is badly used. That’s particularly true of Wright and Macy, who are saddled with caricatures from the pulp playbook that may be amusing for a few minutes, but having no depth wear out their welcome pretty fast. But Isaacs and Anderson have a similar problem on a smaller scale, while the women are little more than decorative ornaments to what’s basically a male-dominated tale; even John’s dog comes across with greater personality than they do.

“A Single Shot” is itself shot in grimly grey widescreen images by Eduard Grau, who certainly succeeds in making the mountainous locale appear inhospitable and threatening, and it boasts a surpassingly irritating background score by Atli Orvarsson, with strings that drone moodily except for those occasions when they give way to sudden shrieks to foreshadow the onset of violence.

There’s certainly meat on the bones of noir and pulp yet, as pictures as varied as “Blood Simple,” “A Simple Plan,” “After Dark, My Sweet” and “Coup de torchon” abundantly demonstrated. But in Rosenthal’s effort one senses a yearning to join that distinguished company rather than success in managing to do so.

THE FAMILY

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Luc Besson is known for his skill in making hard-driving if intellectually arid movies replete with action and violence, but he’s never exhibited any subtlety or much of a sense of humor. Unfortunately, those are precisely the qualities “The Family,” which he’s adapted from a novel by Tonino Benacquista, needs, but sorely lacks. The dark fish-out-of-water farce about a mob family that can’t cope with life in witness protection is strongly cast, but Besson proves incapable of melding the nastiness and laughs into a cohesive whole. The result is tonally schizophrenic and abrasive.

Nonetheless, it has to be admitted that just as he did in “Analyze This” and “Analyze That,” Robert De Niro has fun with the role of a mafia chieftain, here one Giovanni Manzoni, alias Fred Blake. He has a $20 million price on his head after turning state’s evidence against his boss Don Luchese (Stan Carp), who’s hunting him down from his prison cell. It’s the unenviable task of US Agent Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones) to protect Gio, his wife Maggie (Michelle Pfeiffer), their daughter Belle (Dianna Agron) and son Warren (John D’Leo) from the goons Luchese is sending out to find them, especially since they keep blowing their cover by using the methods familiar to them but frowned upon outside Cosa Nostra to deal with anybody who crosses them.

The latest locale to which they’re sent is a small town in Normandy, where they waste little time reverting to their old ways. Gio/Fred not only arrives with a body in the trunk from their last residence, but immediately begins writing his memoirs—a no-no—while taking a baseball bat to a plumber who tries to shake him down and brutalizing an industrialist responsible for the icky tap water. Maggie blows up a grocery store whose owner mutters insults against Americans, and then scandalizes the parish priest she decides to make a long-delayed confession to. Blonde bombshell Belle beats the living daylights out of a pimply French classmate who tries to come on to her while setting out to seduce the handsome student teacher she’s developed a crush on. And slick, conniving Warren plots—besides forging all sorts of documents—to take vengeance on some school bullies who’d manhandled him. And all that is in addition to the neighborhood barbecue they plan to throw.

It doesn’t take long for Luchese to locate them, and to send a small army of black-hatted goons to wipe them out—though the mechanism by which he discovers where they are, a sequence involving a school newspaper that’s supposed to be funny in a Rube Goldberg way, is incredibly dumb. And it all culminates in explosions, massive gunfire and a garroting sequence so gruesome that it might remind you of “The Godfather.” The level of bloodletting in the finale is amazingly high, and appallingly explicit, but presumably it’s okay because all the victims are murderous mobsters, inept federal agents, or—even worse—French. (For a picture made by a French director, the depiction of virtually every Gallic person on display as obnoxious, rude, stupid, malicious, dishonest, cowardly, callous or some combination of the above is really remarkable.)

There are, to be sure, a few moments in the picture that earn some laughs. The best by far is a sequence near the end in which Fred is invited by a clumsy fellow in charge of the local film society to discuss an American flick, which turns out to be “GoodFellas”—though it’s easy to imagine how the scene could have been written much more sharply. And De Niro’s nonchalant manner of explaining away his sadistic tendencies in a running narration will elicit an occasional chuckle. But by and large the attempts at humor are derailed by the mayhem. It takes skill to juggle jokes and violence—“Kick Ass” and “Kick Ass 2” are perfect examples of how it’s done and how it isn’t—and Besson simply doesn’t possess it. It’s difficult to laugh when you’re cringing at the amount of cruelty on the screen.

Nor, apart from De Niro, does the cast bring much to the party. Pfeiffer just does a variation of the typically long-suffering mob wife, loud and aggressive—until the scripts suddenly shifts into bathetic mode and we’re supposed to sympathize with her concern for her family. Agron is pretty and D’Leo smooth, but neither lights things up, and once again the picture fails to make the switch from seeing them as caricatures to caring about their fears and needs. Jones is utterly wasted as the lawman with the hangdog face, a part he’s played so many time in the past that he appears just to be coasting through it this time, and nobody else matters, including the bunch of mob types you’ll recognize from other, better films. The behind-the-camera work is more than adequate, and the locations look authentic.

But “The Family” winds up as a movie that satisfies neither as a comedy nor as an action flick. Perhaps with a different hand at the helm, it could have worked. But as it is, its only enjoyable element lies in watching De Niro send up his own typecasting—again.