For many years, John ("Manchurian Candidate") Frankenheimer has been laboring to remove the parenthesis from the middle of his name. Such is the fate of a man who makes his masterpiece too soon as both he and Orson ("Citizen Kane") Welles found out.
It is therefore sad to report that he will probably never become known as John ("Year of the Gun") Frankenheimer. His new thriller, set in the year of the Red Brigades horror in Rome (1978), is chaotic and rambunctious but consistently undone by bad actors reading bad dialogue badly amid the explosions and the riots.
The movie takes off from a novel by non-superstar writer Michael Mewshaw and I can't help but suspect that at core it's every non-best-selling author's most ardent fantasy: American free-lancer David Raybourne, rusticating in Rome during the crisis, decides to sell out by penning an international thriller. As fate would have it, his manuscript eerily predicts the course of the roller coaster ride the Brigades were about to inflict upon their society.
Raybourne's book is a fictional projection of a kidnapping of a prominent politician by Red Brigade terrorists. When the Brigades do snatch Aldo Morro, Raybourne's MS. suddenly becomes the must-read item of the season. But this kind of celebrity Rayburn doesn't need: People keep trying to kill him.
The plot sounds serviceable enough and if the writer had been played by Mel Gibson or James Woods, it might have worked. But the lynch pin of "Year of the Gun" is poor, wan little Andrew McCarthy who, it is widely reported, wants to be a movie star when he grows up.
He hasn't grown up yet. McCarthy is simply ludicrous buzzing around Rome, dodging machine gun fire on his scooter; he's Alfalfa on a Vespa, and his chirpy presence continually undoes ++ the patina of realism that Frankenheimer has so assiduously built.
But worse is to come: One of the parties chasing Raybourne-McCarthy is the stunning, mean-faced beauty Sharon Stone, an ambitious photojournalist who thinks he has an inside contact with the Red Brigades. When these two jump in the sack, McCarthy is so overmatched it feels like child molestation.
The plot has certain echoes of Graham Greene to it as it spins out the paradigm of the innocent man singled out by conspiracy, but in a certain way it becomes too "thrillery." There are so many switchbacks and betrayals and shifts in allegiance and surprise revelations that the story tumbles toward gibberish.
Frankenheimer retains his considerable vocabulary of technical skill and at the visceral level "Year of the Gun" occasionally unleashes some compelling mayhem. It's certainly not awash with revolutionary sentimentality either, portraying its communist guerrillas as hard-core creeps and thugs, not avatars of a new age. And it picks up great speed toward the end.
But McCarthy lacks the weight to hold the movie together and keep it on course. That's what happens when you send a boy to do a star's job.
'Year of the Gun'
Starring Andrew McCarthy and Sharon Stone.
Directed by John Frankenheimer.
Released by Triumph.