The opening of every film sets the tone for what’s to come. Director Sam Raimi kicked off Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) with a chase sequence, signaling that most of the film will be a race to avoid death. Director Quentin Tarantino opened Inglourious Basterds (2009) with a tense interrogation that introduced audiences to its uncompromising villain, its inexorable heroine, and the brutality that was to come. Director/co-writer Edward Drake (American Seige) opens his film, Gasoline Alley, with bluesy rock music and a montage, setting up a gritty tone and its morally compromised lead in Drake’s “wrongfully accused” action thriller.
Enjoying a late night drink, Jimmy Jayne (Devon Sawa) meets Star (Irina Antonenko), an aspiring actress and call girl. The next morning, Jayne is approached by detectives Bill Freeman and Freddy Vargas (Bruce Willis and Luke Wilson, respectively) because Star and three other girls have been murdered and his lighter was found among them. Next thing Jayne knows, he’s not only the lead suspect in a murder, but he’s being targeted by some deadly enforcers. He’s a man with a past, making him an easy target, so he does the only thing he can do to clear his name: investigate it himself.
There’s more meat on this particular bone than one might expect, prompting a few more surprises and quite a bit of depth to the narrative. Co-written with Tom Sierchio (The Girl Who Invented Kissing), Gasoline Alley explores the vulnerability of ex-cons, the pervasive corruption of the police force, and the misogyny within both legitimate and illegitimate business. In the “wrongfully accused” subgenre, it’s not just the seemingly good guys who get swept up in the wake of criminality (The Fugitive (1993)), but bad guys (or former bad guys) who systems of authority already presume are guilty based on past behavior. In Gasoline Alley, this appears in Jayne’s backstory as he is someone who did time for assault and who has a past regarding call girls. The way the film, via Wilson’s Vargas, puts all this together for us and the fact that the intro cuts out before the audience sees how Jayne’s night ends, creates an aura of confliction that maybe Jayne is to blame or maybe he’s a patsy. The point isn’t whether he did do it, even if it matters to the narrative and the film’s conclusion. The point is that he shouldn’t be the sole suspect based on prior history and circumstantial evidence alone. That the majority of cops Jayne encounters either behave or speak like corrupt cops implies a view that those in power to protect us are also the first in line to get theirs. The film doesn’t explore the root cause of the widespread appearance of corruption, it only acknowledges it exists, providing the audience with a notion that perhaps Jayne is innocent well before the film makes it clear which way the fault lies. While I won’t get into specifics, the clear answer is misogyny. With the exception of Kat Foster’s Christine, a love interest for Jayne, Sufe Bradshaw’s Eleanor Rigby, and the victims, women are underrepresented in the film and it reeks of intentionality on the part of Sierchio and Drake. The women we meet are either trying to remain separate of any system that will drag them down or are entrenched in one. Women are the commodity and, in a realm of supply and demand, there’s enough to go round so none of the villains care who lives or dies. It’s a credit to the writers to even attempt to explore all three of these within the scope of an action thriller, but that they do well to nail all three while telling a fairly compelling narrative is impressive.
It doesn’t hurt that, at the center of the film, Sawa commands attention. He’s the star of the film, sure, and is intended to be the audience’s focus, but there’s a quiet intensity flowing within him well before we see Jayne take on any action. It’s the kind of intensity that lets the audience know the character is a potential threat; the question becomes “to whom?” Amusingly, it would be fair to say that Sawa plays the character as guarded, especially with what we learn about his distant and recent past, yet there’s a warmth to Sawa’s performance as well, making it all the more convincing when Jayne’s able to get people to open up to him with little prodding. Speaking of smart performances, credit to Wilson for making his Vargas believable as both aggressively incompetent yet open enough to recognize when he’s wrong. This grants the shifts in narrative direction far more credence. Some of this goes, again, to the writing for laying the groundwork for the performances, but it really is up to the actors to make it real. Regarding Willis, well, that comes with a great deal of sadness. This is not a great performance from the actor; he’s stiff in all the wrong ways with his physical performance often not in sync with those around him, an aspect which serves to weaken the other performances. I take no delight in that realization in light of his recent public declaration of retirement from acting due to failing cognitive health. This doesn’t give the performance a pass nor does it wave away what doesn’t work about his presence in the film, but it does certainly explain it. Willis is one of the best of his generation, able to navigate all the genres with ease, so seeing him like this is truly heartbreaking.
Typically a film like Gasoline Alley would be dripping in darkness, so it’s a surprise that so much of the film takes place during the day. This only matters as it speaks to more of the subtext of the film that evil, when confident, doesn’t wait for shadows to do its damage. It’s the details of the film which make Gasoline Alley far more compelling than one might expect. There’s nuance and thought behind the ideas that help it rattle in your brain after viewing. Don’t take this to mean that it doesn’t suffer from some weaker supporting performances and the use of Foster’s Christine as little more than a prop for Jayne’s already pained backstory, but it’s neither dull nor expected. There’re some genuine twists and solid action choreography that make you wonder what Drake could do with more time and a bigger budget. Or, given the finale of the film, what Sawa could do as the center of his own action franchise. Potential abounds in Gasoline Alley, making the strengths shine brighter than the dulling by the weaknesses.
In select theaters February 22nd, 2022.
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital April 26th, 2022.
For more information, head to the Saban Films Gasoline Alley webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.