James LeGros does double-barrel duty in films with guns in title roles

March 26, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

There are three possibilities. Either the Charles likes guns, it likes young woman directors or it likes James LeGros. What else explains the congruence this weekend of two films that have those three elements in common?

"Guncrazy," directed by Tamra Davis, stars LeGros as a sullen ex-con who's liberated by love and firepower to go on a killing spree in Nevada and California. In Stacy Cochran's "My New Gun," he's a zany next-door neighbor who borrows a New Jersey housewife's self-defense revolver for what seems sinister and turns out to be benign purposes.

LeGros, who broke through in "Drug Store Cowboy," is a definite find. He's sleepy, off-beat and charming, a Brad Pitt with real soul. He grows on you as each film churns along.

"Guncrazy" is a peculiar little number. It borrows the title from Joseph L. Lewis' 1948 noir masterpiece "Gun Crazy," and I don't know what happened to the space between the words. I also pTC don't know what happened to the theme. The original was of the femme fatale noir variant; it turned out the hero-victim wasn't gun-crazy, he was girlfriend-crazy. She was the psycho; he was a weakling manipulated by her into crime and tragedy.

But "Guncrazy" actually owes more to "Bonnie and Clyde." It's about two losers -- a convict and a sexually abused teen-age girl (Drew Barrymore, who's terrific) who find in their mutual love for guns and each other a wholeness that has evaded them their whole lives. But their crimes aren't the professional capers of the Barrow gang; rather they're modern, formless, random, simple explosions of animal anger with no clear goal or point, except to stay on the run a bit longer.

This squalid narrative plays out against back-road America -- dying towns, scruffy desert landscapes, rusting trailer parks, smoky working-class bars.

Davis has a wonderful grasp of character and milieu, which gives the movie an immediate sense of reality. Sometimes she's too arty -- placing the camera in the grave so that LeGros' Howard can throw dirt on the lens is one excess that comes to mind -- and she really doesn't handle action sequences with any distinction, particularly in comparison to Arthur Penn in "Bonnie and Clyde" or Lewis in the original. But the movie is one of those small-scale works of utterly convincing craft; it hardly makes one false move.

It put me in mind of some of the crime reporting pieces Joan Didion did early in her career: She specialized in locating grisly but somehow resonant crimes that seemed to sum up an issue. In unrootedness, she noted, as does Davis here, lies the true potential for violence; disconnect people from hope, abuse them and marginalize them and you've created monsters. And then it's too late to say, "Why on earth is this happening?"

"My New Gun" is a slightly different kettle of fish. It actually turns out to connect with no other picture with the word "Gun" in the title so much as "Desperately Seeking Susan," being another ditsy, precious but extremely amusing comedy about a young suburban woman breaking free of a marriage to the perfect man and instead finding the right man.

The perfect man is Stephen Collins, a prosperous New Jersey physician who is utterly blind to the arrogant ways he runs wife Diane Lane's life -- as is she. One day he gives her a gun because he's decided that she needs it for protection, even though it scares her silly and she's not willing to put in the training time to master it. Neither is he; of course he doesn't need to, because all men automatically know all about guns -- except for Basic Rule No. 1: Keep your finger off the trigger until you're lined up on target. This works great for him, assuming his target was his foot.

He's logged into his own hospital to recuperate. This frees her to begin to interact with her strange neighbor, Skippy (LeGros), a slightly disreputable young man whose life and story don't seem to add up. Skip wants to "borrow" the gun; she lets him and spends the next hour-and-a-half trying to get it back, and trying not to fall in love with him.

In "My New Gun," nothing is what it seems, except for poor Stephen Collins who always plays handsome white men who get their comeuppance. The guns aren't even what they seem, for the movie really isn't a gun-control screed, and even demonstrates a successful usage of a privately owned handgun to prevent a tragedy. But more to the point, LeGros turns out not to be what he seems and instead gradually reveals himself to be a resourceful and engaging young man.

Lane is wonderful, as is Tess Harper, who plays LeGros' strange mother. I love the way the story is never explained but rather unfolds slowly, a scene at a time, gradually achieving its foothold in your heart and mind. Slow in getting started, it becomes truly hypnotic by the end. It's a terrific little movie.

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