Film Review: 10 Cent Pistol

Clever dialogue, intricate plotting, a jumbled timeline—David Mamet meets Quentin Tarantino in a screenwriter-turned-director's feature debut, a satisfying crime drama about two underworld underlings, a dame and a patsy in sunny L.A.
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A sunlit, neo-noir crime drama influenced equal parts by David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino, 10 Cent Pistol nonetheless has a distinctive voice and enough formal ambition to suggest that first-time feature director Michael C. Martin is worth giving a shot. The film uses nonlinear narrative in a clear and well-controlled way, and audaciously shifts the role of protagonist to four different people in the course of the story—even shifting just whose voiceover we hear. Those are risks that could easily have led to a muddle rather than a juggle, and Martin—who wrote director Antoine Fuqua's Brooklyn's Finest (2009) and has been a staff writer on the Showtime series "Sleeper Cell"—manages to keep all the balls in the air while never missing an opportunity for suspense.

Criminal underlings Easton (Damon Alexander) and brother Jake (real-life brother JT Alexander) are under the thumb of rich, polished and archly witty crime boss Punchy (Mamet regular Joe Mantegna, admirably giving it all even in a low-budget production). After Easton gets a 13-month stay in prison following a brutal job for Punchy, he reunites with Jake and with his girlfriend Daneel (the incredibly busy not-Nicole-Kidman, Jena Malone). Or at least Easton thinks she's still his girlfriend—turns out a guy can't even trust his brother where a woman's concerned. And that turns out to be just one of the secrets Jake's hiding from Easton, in a twisty but (mostly) comprehensible plot involving an old Cadillac stuffed with hidden money, a home invasion at a mansion, a double-cross, a triple-cross, and even an improvised quadruple-cross. That Martin makes it work is a miracle on the level of the loaves and the sleeping-with-the-fishes.

It also involves that distinguished movie trope, bearer bonds—to which a skeptical Jake rightly scoffs, "Are those even fucking real or just some shit they make up in the movies?" They actually exist—they're a fixed-rate bond owned by whoever is holding it rather than a registered owner—but they're uncommon in developed nations since you've little recourse if they're stolen and because most bonds aren't even physical paper anymore but just computerized records. And here the character's awareness that it's a trope is a delightful nod to the movie's cinematic roots, as are burglary masks-of-tragedy that seem a homage to both Stanley Kubrick's The Killing (1956) and the "Twilight Zone" episode "The Masks."

The film is filled, in fact, with juicy lines of dialogue: "You make a move behind Punchy's back, yer gonna pay the asshole tax." "If you wanna work for a fair business, work for the fuckin' county fair." And at its most Mamet-ian, the dead-on "Meet me at the place."

A couple of things could be clearer. We never learn till the end that Easton and Jake are brothers, which may or may not have been Martin's intention: The production notes call them brothers, but Punchy refers to Jake twice as Easton's "partner." It's possible Punchy doesn't know they're brothers, but that's unlikely given his seemingly omnipresent eyes and ears. I'm also not sure how the brothers can afford to live in a million-dollar L.A. loft. And the title itself is hard to reconcile: A ten-cent pistol is urban slang for a poisoned narcotic used for revenge, and the pop-rock duo The Black Keys, who have a song named "Ten Cent Pistol," call it acid or a similar substance with which you disfigure someone, also for revenge. But any vengeance the bros might want to wreak on Punchy can't be in person, for a minor plot reason we nonetheless won't give away, so maybe the term has some definition we don't know.

And what the hell—"reservoir dogs" doesn't mean anything, and look how well all that turned out!

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