As self-conscious pulp thrillers go, one could do much worse than 10 Cent Pistol. Writer-director Michael C. Martin starts the proceedings properly and in medias res, as a pair of LAPD officers appear at the door of Harris (Thomas Ian Nicholas), investigating an alarm from the house’s security system. A cutaway to an establishing shot reveals the home is no mere apartment, but a multi-acre mansion. Harris seems nervous and shaky, telling the cops that one of his friends is stuck in the elevator. As the pair saunters in, they encounter Danneel (Jena Malone) twiddling her thumbs in a doorway while, in the living room, Easton (Damon Alexander) and Jake (JT Alexander) sit on a couch. As suspicious glances and wayward stares are cast, the story world is Martin’s oyster—one which he proceeds to squander as he reveals how all involved came to find themselves inside the house, with betrayal after betrayal and twist after twist, until the order of things is so knotted and cock-eyed that one wishes the director had as burning an interest in significance as he does trickery and quippery.
That’s not to say 10 Cent Pistol can’t be understood; the narrative is finally forthright, but it’s a fool’s errand that Martin’s on, because without a clear set of thematic terms commencing each character’s pursuit of missing government bonds, all of the shiftiness registers as empty movement. Turns out, about a year prior to the opening scene, Easton worked for Punchy (Joe Mantegna), a mobster with a peculiar predilection for Egyptian cotton sheets. Easton took the wrap for a convenience-store stick-up in order to dodge implicating himself in a hit on some Russian gangsters, but after 13 months and a release for good behavior, he discovers Punchy absconded with his funds. Consulting Jake and recruiting Danneel, the trio concocts an interaction with Punchy’s son, Harris, who still lives at Daddy’s home where they believe the stolen bonds are held.
Martin has a knack for dialogue and pacing scenes on an individual basis, especially in early moments with Mantegna’s scenery-chewing made man. Unfortunately, much of the film’s remainder involves Easton, in voiceover, explaining how it all happened. As Easton, Alexander offers little more than a blatant Ray Liotta imitation from Goodfellas, and Martin is content to let the meathead revel in his shallowness. With lines like “She gave head like a fat girl” and “She looks good and fucks like she’s ugly,” Martin revels in machismo throughout, especially in a dingy second act that tediously stretches the proceedings until the inevitable bloodbath shootout.
As Danneel becomes the focus of the third act, 10 Cent Pistol resuscitates some of its earlier intrigue, but even the final revelations and allegiances are affected by Martin’s utter refusal to let any narrative event play out in a single swoop. Doubling back and stitching events together while leaving out others, it’s less clever than deliberately evasive. Furthermore, though a final bit of business is a cute capper, Martin’s efforts ultimately fail to register as anything deeper than a deliberate Body Double riff as conceived by a Scorsese imitator.