Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Neither Robert Chartoff nor Irwin Winkler made many comedies in their formidable producing career, and their The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight is an early attempt that perhaps shows why. Obviously a troubled production, it never finds a sure tone and careers between semi-serious drama, morbid fun and extremely corny slapstick. Although there are laughs to be found, they aren't all that frequent. Interest in the movie today is likely to center on Robert De Niro's early mainstream performance as a visiting Italian cyclist with ambitions to become a major crook by masquerading as a priest.
Kid Sally Palumbo (Jerry Orbach) is tired of watching big-time mobster Baccala (Lionel Stander) humiliate his maladroit gang of losers. To get back in the mob's good graces Kid Sally organizes a six-day bicycle race, for which he imports twelve Italian cyclists including habitual thief Mario Trantino (Robert De Niro). When the bicycle race fails to materialize, Trantino stays on in NYC, masquerading as a priest collecting money for a Calabrian orphanage. Kid Sally refuses to become Baccala's chauffeur and, encouraged by his bloodthirsty Big Momma (Jo Van Fleet) instead declares war on the old-timer Brooklyn hoodlums. Not only are the mobsters hard to kill -- old hand 'Water Buffalo' (Joseph Campanella) is still a tough nut -- but when Baccala retaliates, Kid Sally's foolish followers fall by the score. Things get even rougher when the city decides to crack down on Kid Sally's ill-considered crime wave.
The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight really wants to be funny and has many gags that might be hilarious in different hands. Lionel Stander's mob boss holds court while an assassin climbs a power pole outside his window. In one unbroken shot, the killer raises his knife but is accidentally electrocuted. The gag misfires, its possibilities untapped. More typically the film overuses jokes, like mobsters greeting each other with the one word "Hey" -- and relies on Hervé Villechaize as a midget gangster for cartoonish gags. The very bottom of the idea barrel shows the gang inheriting a lion that proceeds to enliven scenes with its completely irrelevant presence. The lion is used to make collections from local merchants, but the dumb gangsters foolishly feed it the loot in place of its ten pounds of sirloin steak.
Jerry Orbach had been in gangster movies since 1962's Mad Dog Coll but most of his obituaries ignored his career before 1981's Prince of the City. He's entirely okay; it's only the script and the concept that seem too lightweight. Gravel-voiced Lionel Stander is perfect casting for the mob boss, and launches the film well with his hilarious daily off-to-work routine: He sends the wife out to start the car, in case someone's attached a bomb to the starter. But anyone who knows the work of Jo Van Fleet will consider her work here a waste of time. She gives her hard-bitten Big Momma role some nice detail but is mostly directed to walk around with a knife in her hand, in a perpetually threatening posture. It's not very rewarding.
Robert De Niro is so good as the immigrant-thief Italian bicyclist that it's possible that audiences thought he was an Italian actor. His scenes work well because they don't involve any high-concept slapstick, and his romance with pert Leigh Taylor-Young is charming.
Also bopping around the visible periphery are friendly faces Joe Santos, Jack Kehoe, Burt Young, Jackie Vernon and Michael V. Gazzo.
We're informed that the original Jimmy Breslin book is extremely funny. Famous screenwriter Waldo Salt did The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight between a pair of excellent, but sober NY movies, Midnight Cowboy and Serpico. It's tempting to draw the conclusion that Salt wasn't much for comedy, but he did contribute some writing to The Philadelphia Story about 30 years earlier. The problems with the movie are more likely in the direction and production. A great many dialogue lines are post-dubbed, and not very convincingly. Hervé Villechaize is dubbed by none other than Paul Frees (who else?) and sounds extremely phony. Also true to the early 70s, the ethnic slurs get pretty raw -- although in general there's little profanity except for Jo Van Fleet saying the word "Ass" ad infinitum.
Although it certainly has laughs, an air of desperation settles in right during the animated title sequence, which trots out the "crazy chase" motif used by Jack Davis on It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming, and Frank Frazetta on What's New Pussycat?, After the Fox and The Fearless Vampire Killers. By 1971, that motif was stone dead.
Warner's DVD of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight looks fine, with its reasonable Owen Roizman cinematography given a much better shake than on old 16mm TV prints. The crisp audio track shows up all the funky dialogue editing tricks and general less-than-good mix. The only extra is an original trailer.
"Funny" gangsters have had a tough time of it at the movies, as Jonathan Demme found out with the so-so reception given his amusing Married to the Mob in 1988. The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight was quickly engulfed by the serious Godfather phenomenon, which put dead-sober mobsters in business for keeps.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight rates:
Movie: Good -
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 26, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson