Collin Schiffli’s version of “Romeo and Juliet” has a lot of style and even an actress who might remind you of Claire Danes in the Juliet role, but despite a stylish start, and lovely atmospheric lighting, the film “Die in a Gunfight” falters almost immediately and goes from an edgy mix of animation and live-action to a dull posturing of beautiful people.
From the start, we have Billy Crudup’s wise guy narration. In the animated introduction we meet Ben Gibbon, who is a loser. Since the age of five, “Ben Gibbon had been in 723 scrapes, scuffles and brawls.” Much worse, we are told that he lost every single one. “His therapist determined he was actually trying to lose.” Why? Because he had “a nagging sensation that he was floating around inside his own brain watching his life like it was a movie where nothing happened.” He could see it, but he couldn’t feel it. So “he was left with a violent need to feel something.”
Ben Gibbon was determined to make his film, the film of his life, a crowd-pleaser. Then he found love and lost it. We then switch to live-action where we finally meet Ben in the form of Diego Boneta getting beat up in an alley.
Despite the brawl and bruises, Ben and best friend, Mukul (Wade Allain-Marcus), are going to an event at the Rathcart house. The Rathcarts are rivals of the Gibbon family. After a duel centuries ago where Rathcart won by cheating in 1864 in NYC, the two families built up news media empires: Gibbon Telecommunications versus Rathcart Communications. With dueling no longer possible, the two families have settled into politely poisonous professionalism. They invite each other to social events, but don’t that mistake that for friendship. They are, in contemporary terms, frenemies.
Yet Ben isn’t constrained by etiquette. We’re told and thankfully not forced to witness his “reputation for terrorizing high society events.” According to his mother, Nancy Gibbon (Nicola Correia-Damude), there’s a restraining order out on Ben because punched the president of a posh club and urinated on the carpet. Ben is not housebroken. Father Henry Gibbon (Stuart Hughes) can only scowl and ask Mukul why he can’t control Ben. We’ll eventually get more background on Mukul via an animated segment that still doesn’t explain that comment.
The Juliet of this peace is not named Maria as in “West Side Story,” but Mary (Alexandra Daddario). She’s looking bored on the sofa while her mother, Beatrice tells her that “the city’s most eligible bachelors are here tonight.” Mary isn’t the never-been-in-love, never-been-to-bed chaste made. She was expelled from the most prestigious school in the city and then got expelled from a dozen more before being sent to a boarding school in Paris. In Paris, she wrote to Ben, but never heard back and went on her self-destructive ways. She studied at the Sorbonne, sniffed cocaine and was closely watched but eventually “time doused what ever fire was left in her.”
At this point, you might be thinking we’re veering into Quentin Tarantino “Natural Born Killers” (1994), but we don’t go there. There’s violence, but nowhere near amount of operatic celebration of blood you’d seen in a Tarantino film and although the soundtrack is cool and has an easy vibe, I didn’t end up with an ear worm drilling through my brain or the need to sing some refrain.
The director in his recorded talk, said, these two lovers are “jaded, beaten by the world” and characterizes them as “mopey” and “oppressed by their families.” That might appeal to a certain generation or even a certain set, but theirs is an empty love story. Neither Ben nor Mary are appealing characters. I don’t feel their angst in an empathetic pummeling of my heart. The only tears I felt were metaphorical in my regret at watching this film.
The screenplay by Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari seems to be running on empty and all the stylish lighting and beautiful cinematography (by Magdalena Górka) and directing by Collin Schiffli can provide the fuel to make this love story a raging fire. I loved the first ten minutes, but the visual appeal wasn’t enough to carry 92 minutes.
Diego Boneta is a singer who speaks Spanish and English and holds citizenship in Mexico, Spain and the US and a heritage that includes Mexico (father), Puerto Rico and Spain (mother). This makes you almost wish for a musical version, or even, “West Side Story.”
When you watch a love story, you want to feel something and perhaps leave the film singed by romantic notions and wishfully hoping for a happily-ever-after rather than a happy it’s over. Schiffli just needs to the right project as do the rest of this crew who seem talented, but together they can’t resuscitate the dead-eyed fire-doused duo at the heart of “Die in a Gunfight.”