by Andrew Wright

American Gun

dir. Jacobs

Opens Fri, July 11

Cinema 21

When James Coburn reared up in Affliction after years of illness and inactivity, the shock was palpable. Like a decrepit lion with one good swipe left in its claws, his monstrous father figure plumbed the depths of self-loathing and blind fury, while somehow retaining his trademark lazy charisma. The portrayal summed up a worthy career, while also hinting at some previously unused and unknown future potential. The Oscar hardly seemed like enough.

American Gun, the actor's final film, mines the same fertile territory of familial regret and slumbering chaos, to rather diminished effect. Fortunately, Coburn is more than capable of picking up the slack, delivering a fascinating performance of warring contrasts and reluctant appetites; a kindly grandfather who could, someday, sometime, pull a shiv on you.

The set-up is promising: After a family member meets a seemingly random fate, a grieving WWII vet tracks the offending weapon's serial number across the backroads of America, all the while reluctantly coming to terms with his own long-submerged capacity for violence. Writer/director Alan Jacobs is on to something primal here, daring to approach the relatively taboo subject of humanity's endless capacity for destruction. Unfortunately, he doesn't quite seem to be able to fully articulate the potential of his premise, choosing instead to slather the thin plot with repeated flashbacks and late-breaking misdirection.

Barbara Bain and Virginia Madsen work wonders with their relatively small screen-time, and Anthony Marinelli contributes an outstandingly melancholic soundtrack, but in the end, Coburn is the whole show, holding together the flimsy narrative by instinct, charm, and sheer force of will. Ultimately, the moments that linger involve the actor traveling between destinations and plot points, quietly ruminating on a lifetime of minor triumphs and major missteps. Better to disregard the melodrama, and take it instead as a tone poem documenting the final, wintery ride of an irreplaceably magnificent bastard.