Bruce Willis has been very busy of late making films like they are going out of fashion. With at least a dozen releases planned for 2022, Gasoline Alley is the second for him with writer-director Edward Drake, after last year’s action-drama American Siege. Their third collaboration and the yet-unscheduled Paradise City is still in post-production and stars Pulp Fiction’s John Travolta. Perhaps all this high-volume VOD film-making provides an outlet for the Die Hard star to team up with ‘old screen pals’ again, while sharing the frame with new ones?
In gritty noir-ish crime thriller Gasoline Alley, Willis stars alongside Luke Wilson and Final Destination‘s Devon Sawa. However technically, Willis is hardly in it to warrant headlining status, something fans will be disappointed with if they are expecting a silver-haired version of cop John McClane.
When working girl Star (Irina Antonenko) goes missing and is found dead with others in a grizzly body count, prime suspect is tattoo artist and former con James ‘Jimmy’ Jayne (Sawa), after a lighter with the name of his tattoo parlour ‘Gasoline Alley’ is found nearby. Jimmy was also seen at the club with Star on the night she died. Detective duo Freeman (Willis) and Vargas (Wilson) are keen to pin the multiple homicides on him, but Jimmy has other plans and turns detective to discover who is framing him and why? This leads him into the sleazy worlds of backstage Hollywood, the adult porn business, human trafficking and even the U.S.-Mexico narcotics trade.
At a run-time of just over an hour and a half, there is a lot right there to chew on and properly form into a meaty script – in fact too much. As keen as writer Drake is to delve into the seedier side of Hollywood and L.A. and prove that “showbiz is the most gangster game out there”, according to Percy the Porn King (an unrecognisable Rick Salomon), he is just too ambitious. This merely exposes a patchy, half-cooked script that sets up the direction to fail as well.
Willis mumbles one-liners or gets cut out of the action before it even begins. When he is in the frame, he appears nonchalant verging on disinterested, so Wilson tends to pick up the slack and the dialogue. This is unfair on the latter as he plays a convincing ‘bad’ cop initially, but is too busy over-compensating for the lack of his screen partner in law and order. Wilson should have produced a notable performance if it was not for such drawbacks.
Indeed, Sawa also works his socks off. The camera loves him like it loved James Dean. Sawa oozes raw and pained protagonist angst, comes complete with muscles and muscle car and puffs away on a ciggie at any given opportunity, but still manages to capture your attention and almost solely drive this story forward. Sawa, like Wilson, is very watchable and likeable in this. Their scenes together prick the interest for a second, before the inevitable cut to another scenario to stop the big production bucks being blown.
Credit due to In the Line of Duty and Heist cinematographer Brandon Cox, who has worked on Willis’s other recent projects, much like a pool of actors and Drake who will reappear in the credits for the other 2022 films. Aside from fairly decent productions values, Cox achieves some artistic ‘reflection’ shots and contrasting hues in frame to help reinforce the mood in Jimmy’s world. This is where Gasoline Alley also ignites some intrigue.
But, any hope that the third and final act will restore our faith in Willis is again dashed by premature editing of out of frame of the actor, in favour of off-camera dialogue, for whatever reason we just can’t fathom. Indeed, budget restrains aside, is there something else we are missing?
Gasoline Alley is full of foreboding noir promise at the start but is hampered by clunky scripting/directing, over-zealous editing and an absent Willis – either in shot or out. Pity, as Sawa should have soared in such a lead role. Let’s hope there is enough here to convince a more established Hollywood filmmaker to give him the chance in a similar thriller role, as the actor proves he can command the screen with the right material.