Review: A Cliché-Heavy Script Keeps 9 Bullets from Hitting Its Target

The latest from writer/director Gigi Gaston (Rip It Off), 9 Bullets is the story of Gypsy (Lena Headey), a former burlesque dancer who is leaving that life behind in order to finish her…I want to say memoir, or maybe it’s just an autobiographical story based on her rough life. She’s apparently already got a publisher lined up and just has to finish the book on deadline. Naturally, life intervenes as she gets a call from a shady neighbor who has stolen money from a local crime boss named Jack (Sam Worthington), who also happens to be Gypsy’s ex-lover. The neighbor wants Gypsy to call off the crime boss, but Jack wants to make an example out of not just the neighbor but his whole family, including Sam (Dean Scott Vazquez), his young son who has the iPad with all the codes to where the stolen money is hidden online.

This probably sounds far more complicated than it actually is, but that is kind of what 9 Bullets is all about. Sam ends up hiding out with the reluctant Gypsy on her road trip, and although she wants nothing to do with children or Jack, she protects him and his yappy little dog as best she can. Sam actually sees his parents get murdered in front of his eyes, which traumatizes him severely for about three hours. The film takes place over just a few days, but Sam still manages to find the time to be precocious, sassy, jokey and rebellious in that time, while barely mourning the loss of his family.

The road trip sees Gypsy going from place to place, effectively taking a tour of her life before dancing. We meet old friends, including Lacey (Barbara Hershey, playing someone who may or may not be an ex-girlfriend—like most things here, that’s a little fuzzy); new friends, like prostitute Tamin (La La Anthony); and she even has time to reunite with Jack for a roll in the hay (all in an effort to get Jack to call his goons off killing Sam). Sidenote: Sam Worthington looks like he’s been through the ringer here, and I don’t think that’s a choice; maybe working on those Avatar sequels took it out of him, but he’s not especially convincing as an unhinged tough guy in this film.

A lot of elements of 9 Bullets don’t quite connect the way they should, and I found young Vazquez doing a lot of kid actor things that people make fun of in movies about kid actors. He’s projecting to the back rows, acting in broad strokes, and giving us emotional reactions that seem to change drastically from scene to scene. You can almost see Headey cringing as she watches him work his magic. Also, Gypsy’s ever-expanding backstory (which includes a truly manipulative, ill-advised story about her child dying in a car when she was much younger) is almost laughable when you consider how many cliches it checks off in the stripper life story handbook. It all just seems like a long way to go to get us to care about her, when her just being dead inside for unspoken reasons would have been far more effective.

The title refers to Gypsy’s belief that she has nine lives (like a cat, as in “It’ll take nine bullets to kill me”), which of course comes back to haunt her in the film’s final moments. 9 Bullets is the kind of 90-minute movie to have a flashback montage as Gypsy thinks she’s dying to moments we just saw—not to moments in her life, but to moments spent with Sam over the past few days. It might be the film’s worst choice, in a movie fully loaded with bad choices. Headey is doing her darndest to make both her character and this movie interesting and meaningful, but the screenplay is beyond transparent in the ways in which it attempts to make us care about any of these characters. I wanted to; I tried; but in the end, the writing is the film’s worst enemy.

The film is now available theatrically and on VOD.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.