A woman with a gnarly past looking for a second chance. A recently orphaned kid and his protective pup looking for someone to love. A ruthless criminal looking for his missing money. With such perfectly aligned storytelling targets, it’s baffling how badly 9 Bullets misses the bullseye. Writer-director Gigi Gaston blends these characters and their conflicts in one of the year’s more scattershot pictures, a pastiche of cliché and predictability that comes across laughably messy at its best, and hokey at worst. It’s a dud, yet one made semi-palatable thanks to a decent performance from leading lady Lena Headey, and of all things, a soulful ballad written by Diane Warren.
A dandelion is a weed that grows into its flowering beauty whose lifecycle ends on a wistful, superstitious note. An opening closeup, lingering on this puffball of wispy white seedlings taking flight on a gentle breeze, stands as a metaphor for our heroine: tough-as-nails burlesque dancer Gypsy (Headey, Game Of Thrones) is about to take the journey of a lifetime. After selling her memoirs (filled with puddle-deep, self-reflective scribblings akin to a 13-year-old’s Blogspot account), Gypsy quits her job, packs up her trailer home, and prepares for a cruise where she hopes to finish her rewrites. On her last night in town, she gets a call from frenzied friend Ralph (Zachary Mooren), begging her to pick up an iPad containing bank codes controlled by Gypsy’s sadistic ex-beau Jack (Sam Worthington), from which he accidentally stole a significant amount of money.
What neither Ralph nor Gypsy knows is that Ralph’s son Sam (Dean Scott Vazquez) already has the iPad containing the sought-after codes. Desperately fleeing a group of Jack’s goons led by loose cannon Tommy (Cam Gigandet), Gypsy and Sam make their way to Sam’s uncle’s home in North Dakota. But as the odd pair slowly begins to bond, Gypsy finds herself drawn back into her manipulative ex’s arms and deceitful schemes.
For as much as the film coasts on the genuinely sweet, playful interactions of Gypsy and Sam’s relationship, the screenplay is riddled with maddening, misguided contradictions. Characters meant to be taken seriously are gifted with either wildly problematic backstories or silly eccentricities. The mysterious trauma Gypsy is trying to escape is an unsavory choice in which to root her female-empowerment arc. The villain, meant to ooze power and sex appeal, comes across as a dimwitted blowhard with an oral fixation (one that impedes the actor’s line delivery). Casting a milquetoast leading man like Worthington in that part—much less opposite Headey, who elevates her poorly drawn material with depth and dimension—only further strains believability.
Despite a positively brisk running time, the audience is so far ahead of the characters that nothing is surprising. And after the premise’s set-up, modulating tone quickly becomes an issue. There’s a surprising lack of finesse utilized in blending the narrative’s explicit sex and brutal violence with the levity-infused hijinks of a road movie. Action-heavy sequences, like Gypsy’s graveyard pursuit and a climactic shootout in a synagogue parking lot, are poorly executed with subpar cinematography and choppy editing. They stand in complete contrast to the evocative, elegantly lensed opening sequences establishing our heroine.
9 Bullets’ character developments rarely lead to satisfactory conclusions. A few superfluous storylines fail to connect, mainly those involving Jack’s bid for mayor through corrupt connections held by his seductive girlfriend Lisa (Emma Holzer), and a change of heart made by henchman Eddie’s (Martin Sensmeier). Tasmin (LaLa Anthony), a troubled exotic dancer whose Porsche SUV Gypsy steals, injects a desperately needed sense of buoyancy and humor to the proceedings. Meanwhile, Barbara Hershey plays Gypsy’s reclusive friend Lacey, and despite a ham-handed introduction she delivers a strong Linda Hamilton-esque cameo appearance, confidently wielding a shotgun and vanquishing those who threaten her.
The film curries a modicum of goodwill by finishing on the resonant notes of “That River,” a bluesy gospel anthem sung by Jac Ross with lyrics by the prolific Oscar-nominated songwriter Warren, reflecting on character-driven themes about not compromising or surrendering. Still, it feels like more thought was put into those powerful verses than was put into the actual feature that houses the song. It’s clear Gaston aspired to emulate films like Man On Fire and A Perfect World, yet her film rarely rises to those quality levels. There’s very little gunpowder propelling these bullets.