On the surface “By the Gun” is a straight-up wise guy flick that debunks the American Dream and evokes such classic mob staples as "Goodfellas" and "Scarface." Two things distinguish "By the Gun" in its own right, however: It's a confident composition impressively made for a paltry $3 million and it takes place in Boston’s North End, where, among the outbreak of yuppie gentrification, the vestiges of the old school Mafia somehow still rage.
And by the way, it has Harvey Keitel — a good move if you're going to make a mob movie.
Once you get beyond the notion of tony Hanover Street as a boulevard of made men and strongarmed shakedowns, "By the Gun" settles in. British actor Ben Barnes from the "Narnia" flicks, who does a manageable job with the accent, plays Nick, a young Italian-American. He longs to join the local Mafioso order that parades itself around as something akin to an American Legion Club while collecting protection money from store owners and taking down miscreants they determine are '”bad for business.” Nick sees the organization as a step up and an opportunity for more whereas his running mate George (Boston rapper Slaine), thinks the family's BS and works the street freelance though he helps Nick along in his pledge duties of beatdowns and the like.
Nick doesn't have a real stomach for the violent side of the family, and when he finally gets anointed, things go south quickly and he can't get out fast enough. Part of that change of heart has to do with his mom passing, his dad's disapproval and the strip club owner who pimps out Eastern bloc girls. Then there's Nick's mob mentor Sal (Keitel) who isn't as avuncular and warm as he seemed from the other side of the street.
What really gets Sal is Nick's romantic involvement with a tough-as-nails waitress ("Gossip Girl" Leighton Meester) because of her bloodline connections. The ire feels a bit out of left field and more a contrivance than an organic sticking point. There are too many contrivances. Why does Nick want in so badly in the first place? He's initially a low-key pretty boy who might have gone somewhere if he wasn't hanging out with the likes of George. Though without George the film would be sorely lacking as Slaine's class-A sociopath adds much needed relish, befriending drug dealers and petty criminals only to steal their cache or send them down the river for his own gain or amusement.
Back in 1997, Frank Ciota tried the same weave with "The North End." It wasn't as well produced as "By the Gun" but the plot did attempt to go in more dynamic directions. The veteran performances here by Keitel and Toby Jones go a long way to buoy "Gun," as does the slick cinematography by Jimmy Lindsey. But someone forgot to tell writer Emilio Mauro and director James Mottern that the mean streets of the North End got paved under last century when Whitey ratted them out to the Feds.