Judge Adam Arseneau used to keep a lion in his apartment, but it only let him watch MGM films.
Every racket has strings attached.
If you took a copy of The Godfather, edited out all the scenes with Al Pacino in them, and replaced them with splices from The Pink Panther, you would wind up with something that had an uncanny resemblance to The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight.
A 1970s send-up of New York organized crime based on Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jimmy Breslin's best-selling novel, it mixes equal doses of absurdist comedy with Mafioso style—and it has Jerry Orbach to boot.
Facts of the Case
Kid Sally Palumbo (Jerry Orbach, Law & Order) has had enough! Tired of getting no respect from his New York mobster boss Baccala (Lionel Stander, New York, New York), Sally storms in and demands that his gang get a piece of the action. Baccala, on the other hand, sees Sally for who he is: an idiot.
Sally and his gang set out to undermine Baccala and take over his territory, but find putting complex plans into action a bit more complicated than they had originally anticipated. They have no problem whacking anyone who gets in their way, but often have a problem whacking the correct people. As the bodies pile up, the media salivates uncontrollably over the prospect of an all-out Brooklyn turf war captured live on the news.
However, when Sally's kid sister Angela (Leigh Taylor-Young, Soylent Green, Dallas) meets an Italian priest by the name of Mario (Robert De Niro, hmmm…never heard of him), Sally and their overbearing, ambitious mother hatch a plan to use the kind-hearted foreigner in their plan to give Baccala his "Last Rights"…
One part mobster flick to three parts slapstick comedy, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight wants desperately to be a dark comedy, but gets sidetracked along the way by other issues. A romance story between newcomer-at-the-time Robert De Niro and Leigh Taylor-Young takes up much of the screen time and seems to run at cross-purposes to the zaniness being taken up by Kid Sally's hapless struggle for respect and power. Both stories taken on their own merits are decent enough, but utterly fail to harmonize with one another, like checkered pants paired with a polka-dot shirt.
The humor has been dated by the passing of time, its subtlety lost on most modern-day audiences. By today's standards, the jokes are so subtle as to be imperceptible. The two best gags in the film are running ones. The first is a crotchety old Italian grandmother who also happens to be the only one with any brains in the outfit. Get her on a roll and watch out. The second makes no sense and involves the gang procuring a full-grown lion. The plan is to keep it in the basement and feed people to it, but the lion has a tendency to escape and run amok throughout the streets. Never underestimate the comedic value of watching Tattoo from Fantasy Island get forcibly dragged through the streets of Brooklyn by a lion.
Actually the casting of the 6' 2" German-Polish-Jewish Orbach as an ineffective Mafioso is itself hilarious—or at the very least, sarcastic. Orbach can sing, dance, and rip up the streets of New York as a cop, but Italian he ain't. De Niro plays his role with charm, but nothing on the level of his later work, having no material to work with and tripping constantly over a faux-Italian accent. An interesting sidenote: Al Pacino was originally offered the role that went to Robert De Niro, who bowed out to star in The Godfather. Of course, then De Niro went to do the same thing in the next Godfather film. Ironic, eh?
A satire above all else, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight has no problem sacrificing plot points or even jokes in favor of landing deliciously ironic barbs into its subjects—the New York Mafia culture, ethnic stereotypes, and the media. Oh, the film takes more than a few stabs at the media. My favorite dig comes in the form of the media coordinating with the police force the most convenient time to hold raids so as to maximize television coverage. Of course, if the raid goes badly, they can always do a retake.
That's really about it. The film does its thing, then ends. You chuckle a few times, but forget the film almost immediately after the credits rolls. It is by no means flawed, merely inconsequential, overshadowed by funnier, more memorable films of its era. Were it zanier or darker in its comedic undertones, the film might have carved a place in the history books, but as it stands, The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight is but a tiny footnote under Robert De Niro's entry: "Some film he was in before he got famous."
For the age of the film, the audio and video quality is quite credible. Black levels are reasonable, the transfer is more or less clean and free from defect, save the occasional dust speck, and colors are well within acceptable. Likewise, the audio is a typical example of early 1970s cinematic fidelity: mono with occasionally muffled dialogue, but an overall clean and clear presentation. For a bare-bones DVD release, the transfer is quite passable.
Deliciously dated and funky, the score sounds like somebody feeding a traditional Canzone Napoletana band to a gigantic, man-eating wah-wah pedal, which then proceeds to devour it whole. The perplexing blend of Italian folk music, Hancock-esque keyboards, and funk beats may not make a lot of sense from an anthropological standpoint, but it sure gets down with its bad self.
The total absence of all supplementary features, save for a lonely theatrical trailer, shows the love that went into this DVD. It's a special kind of love, the kind that feels like neglect.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The release of relatively obscure films to DVD is always cause for celebration, but in the case of The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight, it would be kind of a dull party with shag carpeting. The problem with films of such mediocrity is that they simply exist and this is all that can be said about them. Neither particularly memorable nor amusing, it merely occupies space in the universe, causing no harm to anyone, but contributing little.
A harmless, whimsical comedy whose humor has been tempered somewhat by the passing of time, the laughter in The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight peaks out after a few chuckles here and there. A cute film, but it isn't much to get excited about.
I've seen worse—and the bits with the lion were pretty funny.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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