"Gun Shy"

A neurotic DEA agent and a goombah Buddha team up in the best and funniest American comedy you haven't seen this year.

Published November 16, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

"Gun Shy"
Directed by Eric Blakeney
Starring Liam Neeson, Oliver Platt, Sandra Bullock
Hollywood Pictures; widescreen (1.85:1)
Extras: Theatrical trailer

"Gun Shy" scooted through theaters so quickly in January (in the dead days following Christmas) that it had opened and closed before most people had even heard of it. Which is too bad, because it's the best and funniest American comedy of the year.

"Gun Shy" is an extended riff on how we've all been reduced to gibbering wrecks by the pressures of our jobs. The hero, Charlie Mayo (Liam Neeson), is an undercover DEA agent who's been a nervous, flatulent mess ever since a deal-gone-bad left his partner dead and him wounded. With his paranoia and his burning gut, Charlie is terrified at the prospect of going back on the job. The joke of the movie is that he's no more scared than the businessmen in his group therapy sessions. Midlevel management is as lethal a prospect to them as Colombian drug lords are to Charlie.

Charlie is most scared of Fulvio (Oliver Platt), a small-time Mafioso renowned for his hair-trigger temper, with whom he has to do his next deal. When we first see Fulvio, he's holding an ax to the wrist of the neighbor he suspects of stealing his morning paper, all the while explaining what happens to thieves in Islamic countries. But in keeping with the comic logic that holds the picture together, Fulvio is a wreck, too. The demons that rob his sleep are his wife (the hilarious Mary McCormack, with her deadpan acidic delivery) and his big-shot wiseguy father-in-law, both of whom despise him.

"Gun Shy" is about how each character works through his problems and how Charlie becomes a sort of guru figure to his neurotic associates. The biggest change in Charlie comes via his new nurse girlfriend (Sandra Bullock, who is at last as funny and appealing as she's always been touted to be), whose common-sense ministrations soothe his soul as well as his colon. (Their initial meeting is a classic. She gives him a barium enema while James Brown's "It's a Man's, Man's, Man's World" plays on the soundtrack.)

There's something inescapably funny about seeing a big man reduced to Jell-O. And Neeson, his eyes eclipsed to frightened pinpoints of light, shaking as if he were on a permanent caffeine jag, is funny here in a way he's never before even hinted he could be. His frayed nerves match up beautifully with Oliver Platt's thuggish calm. Platt is a sort of goombah Buddha, taking in every insult and piece of treachery (even the ones he just imagines) and storing them up for the pleasure of an explosion. He does wonders with what could be standard dem-dese-and-dose wiseguy jokes, as when he suggests that Charlie, who's zonked out on antidepressants, has "that weird sleeping disease -- narcosleepy."

Maybe Disney's Hollywood Pictures didn't know how to sell "Gun Shy" because the setup sounded to them like "Analyze This" (which reminded some folks of "The Sopranos"). But it's a complete original. Instead of the in-your-face approach, writer-director Eric Blakeney goes for making us share the existential jitters of the characters. (Who doesn't feel chewed up by his or her job?) He keeps us pleasurably on edge. And he knows how to talk trash. We're used to outrageous dialogue in comedies now. By parceling out the outlandish lines sparingly, Blakeney makes them feel like zingers.

The pleasure of watching "Gun Shy" on this widescreen DVD is that it's a very handsome comedy. As he relives the ambush he almost didn't survive, Charlie sees gut-shot hoods become airborne acrobats and voluptuous statues come to life. It's a neat joke, typical of Blakeney, that Charlie's most peaceful moment comes after the worst has happened and he can stop worrying when the ax is going to fall. Blakeney has created what might be called the first comedy of the age of Tagamet.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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