‘Die in a Gunfight’: Young Star-Crossed Lovers Play a Dangerous Game

Die in a Gunfight,” always seems like it’s about to get started. Every scene feels like it is an explanation rather than exposition. By the time the film hits the half hour mark we believe the wannabe star-crossed lover, Ben Gibbon (Diego Boneta), deserved every pummeling he endured in his “723 scrapes, scuffles and brawls.” We’d like to give him one just for counting them. You would think his obvious OCD would have been knocked out of him by the time he lands on his own personal Mercutio/Riff/Sancho Panza in his sidekick Mukul (Wade Allain-Marcus). As Terrence Uberahl (Justin Chatwin), the film’s major villain, sums it: “I was sick of you before I even met you.”

Ben is a 27-year-old rich kid with a chip on his shoulder who gets his jollies getting knocked through shoji screens by muscle men with food in their beards. He was in love once. Or so he explains in the overlong narration which never really goes away. Gibbon found the apple of his black eye in Mary Rathcart (Alexandra Daddario), the spoiled daughter of his family’s dynastic rivals. The Gibbon and Rathcart clan warfare began as competing newspaper patriarchal street games, and they built their comradery on a blood feud. One of their late, great, great-great grandfathers shot another one in the back during an early 20th Century duel, and they agreed to meet in hell. 

So, you’re thinking “Romeo and Juliet,” the Montagues and Capulets, or at least the Hatfields and McCoys or the Romanovs and the Romulans, but no, this is not a class act we’re following. Yes, director Collin Schiffli’s “Die in a Gunfight” has style, and plenty of it. From the classic Mustang to the neon nightlife. But it’s Quentin Tarantino’s style, or at least trying to be, and done on a paint-by-numbers canvas. It has Billy Crudup cracking wise on the voiceover, title cards over the entrance of every single character, animated action sequences, freeze-framed flashbacks, quick-cut foreshadowing, and the most self-proclaimed badass leads in the latest fashion. But we don’t care about them.

Ben and Mary are privileged, wealthy and spoiled, and “Die in a Gunfight” is more closely related to “Cruel Intentions” than “Pulp Fiction.” Even the choreographed fights are a step down from the rumbles of “West Side Story,” a more believable take on the Shakespearean standard. Ben voluntarily disowns himself from his parents, Henry (Stuart Hughes) and Nancy Gibbon (Nicola Correia-Damude), for reasons even he probably doesn’t know in spite of all the self-reflective looks he mouths. But even the survey says he shouldn’t be dating the daughter of the competing team on “Family Feud.”

William Rathcart (John Ralston) hired Terrence to spy on his daughter while she was at boarding school in Paris after getting kicked out of all the top prep schools in Toronto, which is passing for New York. We know Terrence is going to be the villain of the film long before he takes on the role, just like we know it probably wasn’t originally written that way.

Travis Fimmel gives the most affecting performance in the film as Wayne, who loses the love of his life, Barbie (Emmanuelle Chriqui), as part of the collateral damage of his profession. He’s a hitman, hired by Terrence to silence a witness to the vague Rathcart scandal before she testifies at trial. But Wayne’s wife isn’t killed because he is on the job. He’s actually just trying to do the right thing, in the wrong world. He’s got heart, and he’s not afraid to wear it on his sleeve in matching tattoos he shares with Barbie. Theirs is a true love story.

The film contains a few wish-fulfillment fantasia scenes, where the audience sees the actions in the viewfinder of alternate realities. But one telling scene differentiates Ben from Mary. Both are cast out of their wealthy families to live like animals, and while Ben’s break is rolled back with a quick rewind, Mary moves forward.

You can’t help but feel some kind of sympathy for Mary, Daddario’s translucent eyes make her most inner thoughts so transparent they are emotional vacuums. But one look at Ben through those eyes sucks all good will dry. Ingrid Bergman made Humphrey Bogart believable as a handsome leading man in “Casablanca” by the way she looked at him. Mary’s adoration of Ben is a bait and switch.

Daddario is consistently effective regardless of the budgets of the films. Mary is barely able to contain herself throughout any scenario, and it is almost painful to watch Daddario reign her in. Mary faces a real dilemma. She’s being treated like property, at best, by her family, in a tangible way. Ben is his own worst enemy. He says he lives life without fear, but is scared to give Mary the visceral thrill of danger in a controlled environment. He wants to be a scoundrel, or a fisherman, but we know he won’t last a month cleaning scales. Mary asks him if he has a death wish. He denies it to her, but all he’s ever wanted to do in life is right there on the title.

“Die in a Gunfight” is a glossy, self-consciously subversive, low-budget romance thriller. The scenarios are contrived and the violence is inconsistent. Besides alternating between unexpected outbursts and long, drawn out expectations with surprising outcomes, it sometimes comes in service of a philosophical musing. Like the film itself, which never quite commits to the type of cinema it wants to be. The surprise wink of an ending is mystifying, but not in that it leaves the audience wondering so much as it leaves the audience wondering why.

Die in a Gunfight” releases July 16 on VOD and in select theaters.