"The Right of the People" wouldn't be worth a minute of anyone's time even if we all had 150-year life spans. For one thing, any movie that approaches the subject of gun control and isn't loudly denounced in advance by the National Rifle Association is probably not much of a movie, and ABC's film, at 9 tonight on Channel 7, isn't.
Not only does the film waffle and wince at the very issues it raises, it's dramatically deficient in just about every imaginable way. If the wave of vigilante terrorism sweeping through prime-time television must continue, one could at least expect that the rabble rousing be adept. "The Right of the People" is not a rabble-rouser; it's a rabble-luller.
Writer-director Jeffrey Bloom diddles away a potentially explosive premise: After armed thieves massacre 10 people in a coffee shop robbery, the district attorney, whose wife and 2-year-old daughter died in the gunfire, proposes a city ordinance allowing anyone over 18 with no criminal record and no history of mental illness to carry a gun, openly, at will. Bloom spends the first half of the film getting the referendum passed, neglecting to fill us in on such details as how the local clergy react to the campaign, and whether the city had been gripped by the kind of crime wave that would make the citizenry hospitable to such an outrageous proposal.
Once Proposition G is law, the milkman, the restaurant cashier and the jogger in the park are all toting firearms. A Travis Bickle sort of character practices a fast draw in his bedroom with two .44 magna and later blasts a getaway car after the robbery of a supermarket in which two other armed civilians die. The Bickle figure is declared a hero and showered with attention. And so on.
Perhaps not wanting to provoke the wrath of the awesomely powerful gun lobby, the filmmakers give some time to the view that, well gee, carrying guns might not be so bad at that, and instead of the blood bath that would naturally ensue from such a situation, the film settles for one of those "whither humanity" fade-outs that say nothing, except that two more hours of precious television time have meaninglessly slipped away.
What a pity Bloom couldn't have devised something more original in the way of a catalytic occurrence than that dreadful old "Death Wish" plot of yore: middle-class professional converted to vigilantism when wife and child are taken from him. As Chris Wells, the neofascist DA, Michael Ontkean is an enigma wrapped inside a riddle wrapped inside a GQ model. Whatever is going on in his head? One minute he is brandishing his revolver in front of a cheering crowd and the next agonizing about poverty and other root causes of crime, and even at film's end you're not clear on this chap's thought processes. Like whether he has any.
Poor Ontkean has such a hard time summoning anything as direct as passion that his cry of anguish when told of wife's and child's deaths seems to be coming from somewhere within the Charlton Heston Academy of Thespic Arts, and his speech to the populace at a town meeting evokes memories of those hilarious bellicose rants John Belushi used to do on "Saturday Night Live" just before twirling himself to the floor in a heap. There is one neatly contemporary detail in the mourning sequence, however; after wife and child are gone, the DA tortures himself with videotapes of them played on the family VCR. This is state-of-the-art grief.
Jane Kaczmarek plays a syndicated columnist named Alicia who was a friend of the DA's wife and who tries to talk him out of his plan. "Tell me what you feel, not what you think," she says in purest airheadese. He tells her, "Guns don't start revolutions, Alicia, they end them." Huh? It must be catchy; it becomes the slogan for the pro-gun movement (without "Alicia," that is). Billy Dee Williams plays a policeman who opposes the DA too, but at one point gets to tell him, "You don't have to nail yourself to a cross, Chris."
Old reliable John Randolph has a few vivid moments as the venerable chief of police, adamant in his opposition to the plan, and M. Emmet Walsh is his deftly sleazy self as the mayor, a stereotypically hypocritical politico. If "Right of the People" were as furiously accomplished a vendetta drama as last fall's "Hostage Flight" on NBC, it might be worrisome, given the volatility of the law-and-order issue, but the whole thing seems an arch botch from beginning to end.
"End" includes an interpolation by the filmmakers of the Ray Charles recording of "America the Beautiful," apparently in a spirit of heady irony. It doesn't work in a spirit of anything but hollow exploitation. You expect it to be followed by one of those portentous rhetorical end titles once popular in theatrical features, along the lines of "The End -- Or the Beginning???" Almost as corny is Alicia's solemn adieu, "What good is the right of the people, Chris, without the heart?" When a movie this callous starts brandishing a heart, it's a little like hearing Muammar Qaddafi say "Have a nice day."