Forgiveness, we all engage in it. We see films that advertise science fiction excitement, or blood-curdling horror, or sword swinging fantasy, and often fail to deliver on these advertised attributes. And we forgive them because usually there is something we can at least find between the opening and closing credits that at least hints at that promise made by the advertising. Even less visceral films can fail to deliver their respective goods and still be forgiven by the audience. Dramas might lack passion but deliver a standout role for some second banana actor, a musical may have only one good number, an animated film may be fluid and beautiful but thematically boring. And we can forgive them. All of them, because in most cases we can see what the film reached for, and how budget or mistakes in the script or storytelling or casting choice all led to the downfall of the piece, and we can forgive that. Horror, science fiction, fantasy, drama, melodrama, costume drama, musical, avant-garde, historical epic, western, etc… We let them all slide because even at their worst, even when they've failed on every possible level we forgive because more often than not because in the failure of those other film types we often find unintentional (and sometimes even intentional) humor.
But, we can't forgive a comedy for being unfunny. When a comedy fails there is no secondary possibility of enjoyment. A film cannot be unintentionally funny and not funny at the same time, and often — I'd go so far to say more often than not — a comedy doesn't rely on as any of the other tools that other films require to tell their story. A comedy is a framework upon which to hang jokes and funny situations, if those things all fail then all you're left with is the skeleton of a story idea. A science fiction comedy might have great special effects but if it's not funny no one will remember anything about the film except that it's not funny (see, for example, Spaceballs). And an unfunny comedy is the greatest cinematic betrayal, no one anticipates paying for a cinema ticket or buying a DVD to not be entertained for 90 minutes.
We can forgive Battlefield Earth for being an idiotic vanity project for John Travolta to further deify his spiritual leader because Battlefield Earth is laugh out loud funny, but put a film like Two if By Sea, an alleged romantic/heist comedy starring Dennis Leary and Sandra Bullock and watch as a stony faced audience waits out the exact cost of their ticket-minutes in angry silence.
That brings us to a subcategory of the stupendously unfunny comedy, the stupendously unfunny comedy based on a stupendously funny book. In this case it's The Gang the Couldn't Shoot Straight, a novel about idiot underworld mob guys in 1970 Brooklyn, written by longtime crime writer Jimmy Breslin. The book managed to be not only funny, but absurdly hilarious, in the tradition of M*A*S*H*, Catch 22, and other, late 1960s/early 1970s deconstructions of accepted somewhat commonplace American stories. The gangster/immigrant makes good on the mean streets, tales go all the way back to silent films made by Edison Studios in New York City. What Breslin manages in the book is to take his ear for hard -oiled dialogue and newspaper accuracy and turn those into metaphor-stacking humor weapons capable of rendering a literate person prostrate and quivering, slicked in laugh-sweat and gasping for breath. What Breslin doesn't do well is write dialogue.
What the film by veteran TV director James Goldstone and veteran screenwriter Waldo Salt ends up being is a feast of bad dialogue, terrible acting, claustrophobic set pieces, and the absolute scene-for-scene retelling of the book without a single snicker, giggle, or titter. And it's not that The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight is boring, it's not, the scenes rarely last more than a minute or two, so it's at least brisk, but it's painfully unwatchably boring. Those two and three minute scenes set up unfunny jokes, unfunny pratfalls, and stupid unfunny situations that stupid characters spewing stupid lines stupidly stumble through, all of them looking like they would rather be in any film other than this being anywhere in the world.
Except for DeNiro. He's hammier than a foot-long Italian combo at Subway and dumber than the person who makes it. You'll want his character to die a million painful deaths a second.
But we're already way ahead of the Hall of Shame curve here, so let's talk a little more about who worked on this film and why it failed. The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight was written for the screen by Waldo Salt. Don't recognize that name right away? See, Salt's stock in trade was heavy drama. The film he wrote immediately before this one was Midnight Cowboy, and the one right after was Serpico. And, safe to say he brought the same ear for broad comedy that both of those films offered up in spades to The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight.
James Goldstone was a veteran TV director who seemed mostly focused on drama and science fiction. He's probably best known for directing a couple of episodes of Star Trek, Where No Man Has Gone Before (the second pilot) and What are Little Girls Made Of, and he directs The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight like it's an episode of Dragnet.
Some awful casting choices and a slavish adherence to the book's narrative drag the film into the deepest pits of crushing unfunnyness and occasionally kicks at its fingers as it tries desperately to claw its way out.
Thus we begin our excruciating journey into the Red Hook section of South Brooklyn amid the scenery chewing stereotypes who populate it. Meet Sergio Baccala (Lionel Stander), leader of one of the five big mafia crime families of New York. We learn about Sergio from a morning news program that helpfully describes his character using Breslin's own text as if a character description was somehow a news item. The film opens exactly like the book, Sergio Baccala has breakfast, and starts to drink his morning coffee before his wife heads out to start the car. Well, I say "exactly like the book," but you can add the addendum, "except it's not funny."
The narration follows Baccala from his stately home all the way into Brooklyn where he maintains a series of legitimate businesses that cover for his criminal enterprises. The TV news narrator helpfully fills us in on these details, not that they'll make any real impact on the story later. The narrator also floats the idea that the DA is worried about a new mob war breaking out because Baccala's business partner was recently murdered, the chief rival to this criminal empire is a guy named Kid Sally Palumbo (Jerry Orbach).
Seriously, if a film needs five minutes of exposition just to introduce the two main characters then the script needs help. I think what happened is that Salt tried to retain as much of Breslin's language as possible the only way possible in this medium is to have someone speaking it, and characters don't typically refer to themselves in the third person so a narrator is necessary. The problem with this approach is that the end result is terribly forced, and jars so sharply with the way the rest of the dialogue and narrative work that it's like someone throwing unexpected detailed subtitles on the screen to explain the character's motivation rather than letting them act through a scene.
Breslin's book describes Kid Sally this way —
He is 29 and has a power base of five cousins and sixty others who live on the South Brooklyn waterfront… Baccala was of the opinion that Kid Sally couldn't run a gas station at a profit even if he stole all of the customers' cars.
How do you make that work in film? Maybe if it was converted to some sort of dialogue. The film just ignores all of this stuff and concentrates on the broad comedy, of which there is exactly none in the book.
And we're less than five minutes into the movie. Brace yourselves, because this is just the first in a seemingly endless parade of awfulness. See, Kid Sally, who lives with his Sicillian grandmother and high-school aged sister Angela (Leigh Taylor-Young) is tired of running the protection racket in the cheapest, shittiest neighborhood in Red Hook and getting paid next to nothing for his efforts. He has a gang to feed too, a right hand man named Big Jelly (Irving Selbst), a driver named Exmo (Jose Santos), and Beppo the dwarf (Herve Villechaize voiced by Paul Frees) who all look and dress like 1930s gangsters and talk like mental patients. We are still listening to the narrator by the time the camera pans into Kid Sally's tiny apartment where Big Momma (Joan Van Fleet) reminds him that Baccala owes him more respect before showing Kid Sally and Angela outside.
Big Momma, in the book, is a powerhouse of 90 year old hilarity, her continuous swearing and carrying on helps explain why Kid Sally develops such a big sense of entitlement. In the film she looks about three years older than Jerry Orbach and must resort to physical comedy (i.e. not being able to negotiate a two-inch step separating her kitchen from the dining room.). It's like watching Tyler Perry act all the parts in, and an entire season of, The Golden Girls while simultaneously receiving a root canal, a digital rectal exam, and a two-dollar special at SuperCuts.
Without Breslin's insanely heavy descriptions, his whacked out metaphors, and his inability to restrain his sense of absurdity, all of the characters, not just Big Momma, become hollow one-dimensional nobodies. In the book all of these people have detailed and funny back stories that help explain why they are in the orbit of Kid Sally and Sergio Baccala, there's a history of the neighborhood too, and of the whole crime syndicate, there's city history mixed in with some contemporary and historical pop culture references. The film lacks all this stuff, the characters are about as realistic as the residents of Gangster Planet 51 in the Star Trek episode "A Piece of the Action", the difference with those characters — irrespective of Captain Kirk's gang and their fancy heaters — is that they seemed capable of developing into something ore than gangster stereotypes whereas here, Kid Sally and his gang can't. Events that should shape the Kid Sally, and the whole flow of the film start, stop, and are never referenced again. Most of the stuff happens with no consequences, again in deference to the book, where payback for the International Bike Race fiasco (coming in a few paragraphs I promise) gain ground on Kid Sally and drive him to more and more desperate (and stupid) attempts to usurp Baccala from his throne.
Kid Sally and his little gang demand respect at a meeting with Baccala, their argument is that the old mob guys have sold out, they horde their money and send their kids to West Point while the street thugs like Kid Sally and his gang take all the risks and get nothing in return. Baccala tells Kid Sally that he can earn respect by running a special 6-day bike race for Baccala.
Now, as we leap back into the book, the prepwork for getting this stupid bike race off the ground is really funny. See, Baccala loves bike races because as a kid he witnessed one during the great depression and watched as, during the exciting parts, the crooked kids stealing coats from the bleachers. With a six day open gambling fueled bike race, Baccala plans to bring all of the local mob bosses together. He's already got bike teams from all over the world itching to come and race. It'll be billed not only as a sporting event but as a cultural one too. So Kid Sally has to find a place to build the track, hire carpenters, find racers and set up their accommodations, etc, all while still running the shakedown racket. In the film he just shows up at the Red Hook armory and tell the carpenters to get busy, he runs home to argue with Big Momma (and Angela about why he ate her half-eaten chocolate bar) who tells him to get lion cages from the circus to house the racers, then the Italian racers all arrive at the airport and we meet Mario (Robert DeNiro) who's supposed to be raising money for a Sicilian orphanage. Kid Sally and his gang escort the racers out to waiting cars.
All of this is in like less than three minutes. In the book this takes time because Mario has a back story, and Kid Sally has a long argument with the designer of the racetrack and the guy in charge of the armory, all of which is very funny in print form. Sadly, not in the film. The closest we get to humor is Beppo the Dwarf jumping on his hat while Exmo throws himself on one of the limousines outside the airport.
In the hotel where the Italian race team is billeted, we're treated to about six minutes of Mario emptying his pockets of all the airline shit he stole, and refilling his pockets and luggage with everything not nailed to the walls and floor of the hotel room. Ugh.
Kid Sally and his gang end up with a dozen circus cages but one of them comes with a lion. For the next (and I counted) four minutes we're treated to a scene of Kid Sally and his gag using Beppo to chase the lion out of the truck, then out from under the truck, then into the cellar at the vending machine storefront. There is not a single laugh to be had in all of this. Any possibility of physical comedy is slaughtered with Dragnet-summation directing and the "spontaneous" post-production vocalizations are awful, and simply restate what we're seeing on the screen.
In the book the lion actually had quite a big impact on how Kid Sally did his business. Now, with a lion on a big chain and Big Jelly able to lead the beast around, he was able to shake down all of the regular haunts for even more money than usual. Breslin handles these scenes with loads of goofy descriptions, especially from the storekeepers and bartenders where Kid Sally gets the protection money.
Back in the film we learn that Big Momma and Angela live upstairs from the vending machine storefront, and that Kid Sally is protective of his sister. Kid Sally also want to protect what little respect the bike race will bring him by running Baccala's bike race and demands that Angela dress up pretty. She refuses. He threatens her. She throws milk at him. He slaps her out of a chair and says she better get used to being Kid Sally Palumbo's sister and start acting like it. Big Momma tells her to get off her ass and get dressed.
This is played "Serpico-straight", and for a film that's already unfunny, Kid Sally's meanness just increases the urge to rip the DVD out of the player and smash it into a bazllion pieces.
Big Jelly crashes the dinner with two prostitutes, ostensibly to watch over Angela (since Kid Sally wasn't invited). This is where she meets Mario for the first time. Angela is already known to the Italian businessmen in town and the race organizers fawn all over her. She and Mario are introduced, but Mario can't stop sticking things in his pockets. Angela watches as he strips all the tables and eats half-consumed leftovers. They leave the party to eat somewhere else. Big Jelly is too wrapped up with his prostitutes to care.
Angela and Mario get pizza from a storefront vendor. The thing with Mario is that he's played almost like he came from a donkey and "fire-bad" type society in Italy. As if Italy was some ass-backwards third world shithole. I mean, there are goofs and idiots in every country but to a champion bike racer not have ever encountered ketchup is unreal. Angela asks some question about Mario then gives him a token for the subway. She promises to watch his race in the morning.
Now, because the storytelling is so awful, Goldstone uses intertitles to set the stage for the bike race. "Kid Sally Stages the Big Bike Race". I guess this was meant to be sort of a fun diversion or something from the previous millennia of awfulness, but don't be fooled. Big Kelly rousts all the racers from the locker room. The stands are filled with people who can't wait to gamble. But, the track isn't finished. How they could not know that the track wasn't finished before letting the crowd in is anyone's guess. Anyway, it's not. The motor pool in the armory is still full of jeeps and tanks and the sergeant refuses to move them outside. Now they must cancel the race Cut new intertitle —
"But did Kid Sally do da' right thing?"
The crowd nearly riots as Paul Frees (as the announcer now) tells the crowd that the race is postponed indefinitely which brings up a new intertitle —
"Baccala is not happy."
In the chaos, Kid Sally hops on one of the race bikes and speeds around the unfinished track into the motor pool.
Again, ugh. But at least we never have to see another of these intertitles again for the remainder of the film.
At this point in the book I was seriously considering whether I would need a new laughter-ruptured spleen. In the film I just wish it would end. All of the insane detail that Breslin worked into the crazy bike race, the flea infested lion cages, the rampaging bikers, the lack of brakes on the bicycles, how he describes the intense feeling of freedom that one of the Polish gangsters has when he steals a race bike and hits the track only to slam into the descending armory door — none of that is here.
Back at Baccala's office, Kid Sally is demoted from strong arm to personal chauffeur. With his job only to drive Baccala to lunch and back every day he won't make enough money to keep his gang together.
Cut to what will become the central secondary storyline, that of Angela and Mario's romance. Angela enters the hotel where all of the Italian bike racers are billeted. With the race off they are all being shipped back to the old country post haste. Goldstone manages to make the whole team appear to be savages too. Breslin probably did that in the book too, but it seems extremely jarring to have all of the bikers essentially stripping the hotel clean like third-world locusts.
Mario says that he isn't going home, but doesn't know where he'll stay. Angela gets him a shitty tenement apartment in South Brooklyn. This apartment is probably the most interesting thing in the movie as it looks like it was virtually untouched since about 1890 aside from having a refrigerator and electricity. It's a plaster and claustrophobia tenement apartment, the kind that social workers railed against for decades at the early part of the 20th century and seeing one here is like seeing a dinosaur in the flesh.
Actually, now that I mention it, the only thing that the film has going for it is the archeology of old South Brooklyn. I would assume that the streets where this was shot, the tenements where the characters lived, and the urban jungle in which the story exists probably have been gentrified out of existence by now.
Back in Kid Sally's apartment, Big Momma says that they have to kill Baccala to get his respect back and to get to Baccala they have to remove Baccala's protection, an old gunman named Water Buffalo (Frank Campanella). Big Momma explains that Water Buffalo parks his car in the same place every night. Exmo and two other of Kid Sally's gang wait in the vending machine delivery truck after barely deflating one of Water Buffalo's tires. They chase him into a junkyward, and for a reason never explained in the book, refuse to chase Water Buffalo through the mud for fear of getting their expensive loafers dirty. Water Buffalo gets away but the three lie to Big Momma and Kid Sally that they threw Water Buffalo's body into the East River. They show the big lie here by having the men scream the way they said Water Buffalo screamed when he was shot. It's like a fill minute of two guys screaming. The murder doesn't appear in the news (because it didn't happen) but Kid Sally is trusting and lets the guys off in case no one is saying anything to try and draw out the murder suspects. As part of the visual representation of Kid Sally's low standing in the gang hierarchy, all of his men are squeezed into a tiny kitchen area while Big Momma feeds them. This sort of meeting scene happens rather frequently as the film goes on.
Water Buffalo kills the two hitmen later that night but running them down in his car.
Cut to the funeral where wailing Italian woman (a professional mourner) is prostrate with grief.
Cut again to Mario being fitted for priests' vestments. After a couple of minutes he steals the clothes (thus adding to his kleptomania) and returns to his apartment that now overflows with stolen crap. Angela arrives and asks where he got all the stuff. At a local Chinese restaurant, Mario eats like a savage and announces to Angela that he's not going back to Italy. On the way put of the restaurant he steals all the tips.
Cut to a construction site where Kid Sally's gang will make an attempt on Baccala using a remote control explosive. Unfortunately, since this is 1971 the radio detonator will apparently function on any frequency, so while the associate of Kid Sally, a construction worker (Burt Young), scoots through the sewer tunnels to where Baccala's car waits, a passing police cruiser sets off the charge.
Cut to the funeral, then to Baccala's office the next day where, during a meeting, another of Kid Sally's gang climbs up the power pole outside the office and is electrocuted. This assassination attempt makes no sense though as the would be assassin is armed only with a Bowie knife and is all the way at the top of a power pole. This sort of idiocy is indicative of the quality of the film, and in case you forgot, none of this is remotely funny.
Back at a meeting with Mr. DeLauria, Baccala's front man for the race, Mario is attempting to steal donations for the Italian orphanage but he's foiled by a mailbox. De Lauria gives Mario Baccala's number.
Back at the vending machine company where for a fill minute Big Momma beats on two dogs with a broom while Angela stands around and watches, Kid Sally and the gang are broke and reduced to trying to phone-threaten their regulars for protection money, but all of them have given their extortion to Baccala. Remember, Kid Sally was demoted to chauffeur. They hit on the idea to use the lion to help loosen people's pockets. But, because the film is slavishly devoted to the book (but not funny) we must first watch as the lion is dragged through a car wash.
The lion thing works surprisingly well and all of the people who gave to Baccala also give to Kid Sally and the lion. I do not know how long in film-time Kid Sally was supposed to have the lion, but the reason the hit on the idea to use it to intimidate people is that he's turned the basement of the vending machine storefront into a stinking litterbox. But if he's been down there long enough to stink up the place, they must've fed the beast, right?
I have time to pick these nits because I am not laughing, remember.
They get ten pounds of steak to go with their protection money and upon returning to the vending machine storefront, toss the meat downstairs with the lion in hot pursuit. Except, because this movie isn't funny, they've actually thrown the cash downstairs and the lion eats it.
In the book the setup for this joke is way better, and the detail that Breslin puts into setting the scene is great, see, Kid Sally and the boys are having so much success and fun shaking people down with the lion that they get careless and toss the money back while they are driving home. It's not until they get there and open the truck do they find the lion vomiting five-dollar bills.
I know, it doesn't come across well here, but you should read the book.
Somehow these low rent antics draw the attention of the media and knock some welfare program off the headlines so the mayor calls for Kid Sally's head. The police chief who's in league with Baccala pulls the whole gang into the station. In the book, these scenes allow Breslin to play with all the different ethnicities in Brooklyn for laughs, in the film it's just a standard police procedural. Everyone gives the same answer, "What could I tell you?" Except for Angela, who gets pressured about Kid Sally's business, the police let her go without charges but the media swarm her as she runs from the station.
Angela heads straight to Mario's apartment where they have boring (which is meant to be tender but it isn't) 1971 sex. Angela takes Mario back to the apartment where Kid Sally and the gang watch the news report of their release from the police station. Big Momma is upset because her swears were bleeped.
Big Jelly recognizes Mario without his fake priest's clothes and tells Kid Sally. Kid Sally, because he's an asshole, threatens to kill Mario. Big Momma wants to cut off his hands for sleeping with Angela. Only when Mario shows his picture of the orphanage with Baccala's name on the back does everyone relax.
The gang hits on the idea of using Mario, in his stolen priests clothes and in with De Lauria, to get to Baccala. They'll hit him at lunch, and can't make a mistake this time as Kid Sally and Big Jelly will handle the shooting. Mario refuses. Angela says they should kidnap Baccala first, get all his money as a ransom, then shoot him. Mario reluctantly aggress to help.
This goes on for ten minutes and, sing it with me now, none of it is funny.
Cut to the whole gang clustered around the table with Big Momma spooning something that looks sort of like baked garbage into everyone's plates, especially Mario's. She lays out the plan to kill Baccala and lists what they'll need, new clean guns, white jackets, a new sign for the truck.
Big Jelly pays off a guy to stand in for the regular bartender at Baccala's chosen lunch restaurant. His job will be to slip mickeys to Baccala's guards. Kid Sally and Big Jelly will arrive in the disguised vending machine truck carrying buckets of iced fish with machine guns hidden inside. They'll conceal their faces as they enter, pass by Baccala's table, then draw the guns and shoot him. Mario is meant to keep Baccala focused on the orphanage rather than what's going on around him.
However, when the lunch party arrives the substitute bartender doesn't know how to slip the mickeys and has to force the guards to drink at gunpoint. Kid Sally and Big Jelly Arrive just as a meter maid is patrolling the street. She immediately begins writing a ticket for their delivery truck prompting Big Jelly into a fist fight with her. Kid Sally continues in with the fish and guns but the ice has seized up the cheap weapons and his gun explodes in his hands.
In the book (again with the "in the book"?!?) the setup for this scene is really funny too, and allows Breslin to drop amazingly offensive bombs about the Roz the Meter Maid (was large enough to be listed in Jane's Fighting Ships), to the crazy offensive argument that leads to Big Jelly getting a fantastic ass kicking at Roz's hands, to the two bodyguards forced at gunpoint to drink spiked drinks and (unlike the film where they just fall over unconscious) projectile vomit all over each other and the substitute bartender.
Mario pulls his priest schtick and Baccala likes him because he immediately gives absolutions for all of Baccala's sins such as looking up little girls dresses.
Anway, Baccala is saved, no one sees the assailants. Kid Sally fails, but the gang manages to capture Water Buffalo, so all is not lost. They shove Water Buffalo into the basement with the lion and he promptly dies of a heart attack. The gang decides to throw his body off the Verizanno Bridge.
Mario goes home to Angela at the apartment, but she's under surveillance by the cops. Mario is expecting a huge payday from Baccala for his miracle and tells Angela that they should leave tomorrow and go back to Italy so they can be rich. There's more annoying tender talk between them that drags an already slow and boring movie to a complete halt.
Cut to Kid Sally and the gang throwing a cement weighted Water Buffalo off the bridge. He falls through the deck of a passing tugboat. Cut to the mayor watching the news where Water Buffalo's body is removed from the boat.
Cut back to Angela and Mario. He tells her not to go home and gives her money to buy something nice and she walks off.
Women are easy… sheesh.
Mario is immediately snatched by the cops.
Cut to the news where a helicopter circles Red Hook. The cops are about to raid Kid Sally's operation and it's going live over the airwaves. However there's a hold up as one of the news stations hasn't arrived yet. I get it, this is supposed to be a little jab at the media, sort of the same as when they all swarmed Angela as she left the police station. The newsmen cover the raid like it's a football game.
The police chief, in a gas mask, reads the arrest warrants for Kid Sally and Big Jelly for the murder of Water Buffalo. The police are inept idiots though and both the police chief and DA race in and arrest the gang. The news guys ask if they can have another shot of the DA the place raiding without a gasmask on. He does and accidentally frees the lion. Kid Sally is called back into restrain the lion before being led away.
Mario, in the police station is shaken down by the cops. They make veiled threats to use Angela as a prop to showboat their crime fighting skills and link mob violence to student violence (in true Vietnam era fashion). They make Mario a deal in exchange for simple deportation, he is meant to stand in front of the grand jury and testify against Kid Sally.
Mario screws over the cops by playing "no speeka eng-a-leesh" card (how this works is still a mystery) at the grand jury hearing and crashes the whole case. Angela is released from the police station and goes to the airport to find him boarding a Pan Am flight to Italy.
Angela returns home and releases the lion which runs off roaring into Brooklyn.
Cut to Baccala eating breakfast and watching the news, same as at the beginning, where we learn that Kid Sally's gang all pleaded guilty to trying to murder Brooklyn and will receive a year in jail. Baccala walks to his car, that his wife has already started (to check for a bomb in the ignition) and it explodes.
End movie. Find local Olive Garden restaurant and defecate below the clumsily painted and indeterminate mural of pastoral Italy. When arrested for being a disgusting asshole play the
"no speek-a eeeng-leeesh card" and count the truncheon hits before you lose consciousness.
Now, aside from the Made-For-TV directing, the astoundingly unfunny script, and the slavish devotion to the book's events, The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight manages to have a moderately good cast. From Jerry Orbach's first real meaty role as Kid Sally, to DeNiro hamming it up as Mario Trantino, you can see the seeds of their long careers even buried in all of the shit piled up here. Jerry Orbach wouldn't become a huge presence in American entertainment culture until his role in Dirty Dancing. But, every good bit of his character you see in that film germinates here in The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight. His stops between that film and fame took him back and forth from TV to Broadway and all places in between, and it's neat that he sort of got started here. Leigh Taylor-Young is also excellent as Angela and manages to almost have two dimensions. Finally, DeNiro as Mario is — well, it's definitely a different kind of role than in, say, Mean Streets. He actually has a flair for physical comedy and a very innocent-mischievous face too, which Scorcese probably slapped out of him between Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. The rest of the cast is awful, from longtime TV actor Lionel Stander as Baccala who has all of ten lines in the film, maybe, to Irving Selbst's dreadful perpetual annoying post production voiceover as Big Jelly to Paul Frees. Blech. The whole post-production end, minus Orbach and Leigh Taylor-Young has the air of being made very, very, very, quickly and cheaply.
Adapting books to film is hard because to make the transition work it's necessary to jettison some of the book's contents to fit the medium and time of a film. Literature really is a different animal than film too, and never it that more apparent then in the adaptation of a comedy book to a comedy film. It's much more likely that an adaptation of a drama, or science fiction/fantasy, or period romance, chick-lit, or whatever is going to succeed on some level because for the most part those books don't rely on elaborate literary joke builds like a comedy does. Watchmen may get tons of shit for being too pedantic and too beholden to the source comic, the adaptations of Jane Austen's novels (a staple of Masterpiece Theater) usually capture the majority of her funny dialogue and most of the story elements, law thrillers and, like, the Bourne books all succeed as films because their material is dialogue or action driven. The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight is language driven, and I know that doesn't sound like it means anything, but consider this –
The Baccala family runs all organized crime in Brooklyn. The gang has been in Brooklyn longer than the Ferris Wheel at Coney Island. It was formed in 1890 under the leadership of Raymond The Wolf. He ate babies. Raymond the Wolf passed away in his sleep one night from natural causes; his heart stopped beating when three men who'd slipped into his bedroom stuck knives in it. Joe the Wop, who had sent the three men, took over the mob. Joe the Wop shot nuns. A year later he dropped dead while being strangled.
How the hell do you make that funny in film? You can't! It's impossible! The closest you can get to this sort of humor are films like The Naked Gun, but even they rely on more sight gags and turns of dialogue silliness than Breslin's brand of expository humor. To adapt this book is unforgivable.
Avoid this film like it'll give you radioactive crabs.