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‘Year of the Gun’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 01, 1991

Timing is essential in the making of a thriller; the director has to know precisely how to parcel out his story, what to withhold from his audience, what to tell it and when. And, in his new spy saga, "Year of the Gun," John Frankenheimer makes serious miscalculations. The other shoe takes forever to drop, and by the time it does we're far beyond caring.

The film, which is set during the revolutionary crisis in Italy in 1978, takes the real political circumstances of the time as its backdrop. It focuses on an American journalist named Raybourne (Andrew McCarthy) who works for an English-language daily. He is sucked into the whirlpool of Red Brigade radicalism through his involvement with Lisa, a wealthy Roman beauty (Valeria Golina); Italo, a left-wing university professor (John Panklow); and Alison, an ambitious photojournalist (Sharon Stone).

Raybourne isn't an innocent; in the early '70s he was implicated in the bombing of a New York town house. But now, with revolutionary currents swirling all around, he seems indifferent to politics. Instead, he uses the turmoil in Italy as the setting for a spy novel that he hopes will become a bestseller, make him lots of money and enable him to run away with Lisa. Every night he works away at his manuscript, playfully assigning the names of his friends to the CIA and Red Brigade operatives who fill out his story. His problems begin, though, when the real Red Brigades get hold of the book; some of his details -- such as Italo's involvement with the group and the plot to kidnap Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro -- conform all too closely to the truth.

It's only a coincidence, but that's not how the Red Brigades take it. The radicals accept Raybourne's fiction for fact, and as a result, one by one his friends are knocked off and he himself becomes a target. Unfortunately, by the time all of these plot strings are woven into a comprehensible pattern, we have spent too much time up in the air. There are too many scenes that impend, and not enough that deliver.

There's another problem: Andrew McCarthy. "Year of the Gun" aspires to serious intrigue -- like Raybourne's novel, it's intended as fiction with real-world reverberations. Which raises the question: If you want to make a serious movie, why place a lightweight with such limited gifts at its center? McCarthy is the most insipid of the "St. Elmo's Fire" bunch, and watching him try to play a grown-up here is like watching a 3-year-old clomp around in Daddy's size 11s. There's nothing specific in McCarthy's acting, just a generalized atmosphere of pretension and spoiled depression.

With the exception of Stone, who gives a confident, unfussy performance, the other actors are just as draggy and undistinguished. Panklow, in particular, seems stiff and uncomfortable with his Italian accent, and Golina can't seem to get her mouth around her lines. Granted, almost no one could. The script, by David Ambrose, is loaded with stodgy, overripe dialogue, and whereas you might forgive Raybourne for pontificating because, well, he's a writer, everybody talks that way. They don't speak, they speechify.

"Year of the Gun" is so cluttered that its themes never come across -- it's as much a mess as Italian politics are. There are hints that Frankenheimer wants to make a point about the role journalists play in world events, about how easily the observer can become a player. But his ideas are never fully articulated. They're just sort of shoved in at the end. Ultimately, we don't come away with much, except frustration. Watching "Year of the Gun" is a little like watching a pitcher go through an elaborate, body-contorting wind-up and then walk blithely off the mound without ever throwing the ball.

"Year of the Gun" is rated R for sensuality and violence.

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