Gasoline Alley opens in a Los Angeles bar, where Jimmy Jayne (an excellent, lived-in turn from Devon Sawa), drinking alone in the wee hours, is approached by a pretty woman, Star (Irina Antonenko). “I just sensed you were a man running from shadows,” she says to him, as though he were a grizzled noir antihero and she the femme fatale. In fact Star is a hooker, quickly propositioning Jimmy – and before we can hear his response, the film cuts to several hours later, as LAPD Detectives Bill Freeman (Bruce Willis) and Freddy Vargas (Luke Wilson) arrive at a cordoned-off crime scene, where flashing blue-and-red police lights briefly illuminate a graffito of the acronym ACAB – a signifier both of the film’s contemporary nature, and also of a key theme. Near there, Star and three of her hooker friends have been found posed in a bloody tableau with their necks broken. Alongside their corpses is found a cigarette lighter advertising ‘Gasoline Alley’, the shop across town where Jimmy works as a tattooist, leading the two cops straight to Jimmy, and making him the prime suspect in a case of brutal multiple homicide. Still, anyone who plays with this man’s lighter is likely in the end to get burned.
Jimmy is unusually placed in his allegiances here. On the one hand, his mother was herself a ‘working girl’ before she went missing years ago, making him very sensitive to the plight of women like Star – but on the other hand, his father was a cop before drinking himself to death. Very much a product of his upbringing and environment, Jimmy straddles the thin line between criminality and the law as his dual birthright – and having spent five years in prison for putting an assailant in a wheelchair, he has no intention of going back inside. So Jimmy is soon himself ‘playing detective’, looking into Star’s associates and acquaintances, and trying to work out who is framing him – indeed trying to kill him – even as his investigations take him to television sets, sleazy parties, porn studios and underground tunnel networks, not to mention a Tinseltown netherworld of drugs, vice, corruption and cold-blooded murder. Good thing that Jimmy knows how to take care of himself and to stay calm under fire.
This is not the first time that director Edward Drake (Broil, 2020), here co-writing with Tom Sierchio, has collaborated with Willis. Indeed, in this film set on the dark periphery of Hollywood, a popular – but terrible – TV show that stars one of Jimmy’s old cellmates (Kenny Wormald) shares its title, via a kind of metacinematic in-joke, with the first Willis vehicle that Drake would direct, American Siege (2021). Drake would helm three more films with Willis in them, Apex (2021), Cosmic Sin (2021) and finally Gasoline Alley, and co-write another two, John Suits’ Anti-Life (2020) and Chuck Russell’s forthcoming Paradise City, before Willis announced in 2022 that he had been diagnosed with aphasia and would be permanently retiring from the movies. Gasoline Alley might be regarded as a swan song for Willis and his career, as he gets once more to play an officer of the law and even fire an automatic weapon as he did in the Die Hard franchise that has defined his big-screen presence. Yet Willis’ age and encroaching illness are also in evidence, as his character here, though pivotal to the plot, leaves his partner to do most of the talking and recedes largely into the background – a figure spotted on the other side of a crowded room or through a doorway. Nonetheless Drake uses our familiarity with Willis’ rôle as good cop John McClane to muddy our understanding of the moral boundary that Bill Feeeman has long since crossed, and to ring the changes on America’s shifting attitudes towards its law enforcers. For while Gasoline Alley may not quite conclude that ‘all cops are bastards’, it certainly suggests that many if not most are, and shows police detectives regularly inhabiting the same shadows from which its increasingly violent ex-con protagonist keeps trying to run.
From its pulpy title to its stylised neon lighting, and from its hard-boiled dialogue to its many scenes of contemplative smoking, Gasoline Alley is a noir (of the neo– variety), and more specifically it feels like a spiritual successor to the Nineties run of Elmore Leonard adaptations like Barry Sonnenfeld’s Get Shorty (1995), Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997) and Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight (1998). Once again we have a capable, cool character speaking in laconic lines, operating on the borderline of legality, and easily passing through different demi-mondes and undergrounds on the margins of LA (or of Tifton, Georgia, doubling as the Californian metropolis in yet another stylisation). This is a twilit world in the City of Dreams, full of aspiring starlets, auditioning musicians, wannabe writers and deadbeat directors all brought back down to (and below) earth by the sheer weight of their frustrated ambitions and devoured into their city’s seedy underbelly.
Like David Robert Mitchell’s Under The Silver Lake (2018), Gasoline Alley depicts a misogynistic Los Angeles which consumes and callously discards the female hopefuls who come to it looking for success in the entertainment industry. Here, to misquote Wilde, everyone is in the gutter, but some, like Jimmy, are looking at Star – and where other men in the film seem content to exploit, instrumentalise and objectify women for their own pleasure and profit, Jimmy sees women like Star and the singer Eleanor Rogers (Sufe Bradshaw) for who they are and what potential they have – and in his quest for mummy as much as daddy, he becomes a friend and ally to the opposite sex even as he takes out the male trash.
strap: Edward Drake’s stylised LA-set neo-noir sees an ex-con tattooist evading a conspiratorial frame-up and avenging murder
© Anton Bitel