In 1978, Rome is racked with sectarian violence, as the Red Brigades - doctrinaire Marxists with a sideline in casual ultra-violence - clash with resurgent fascists, and a restless population of student radicals bristle under the deeply corrupt rule of bankrupt governments which change more often than the guard at Buckingham Palace. Into this city of kidnapping, bank robbery, balaclava-hooded death squads, regular riots and random reprisals comes David Raybourne (McCarthy), a young American ex-radical who is working on a Day of the Jackal-style would-be best-seller about a Red Brigade plot to kidnap prominent politician Aldo Moro, unaware that a real plot exists and that several of his closest friends are involved in it. Also new on the scene is Alison King (Stone), a blonde photojournalist who specialises in snapping away during hails of bricks and bullets as she tries to get the real story. David is hooked up with aristo Lia (Golino), but Alison sets about bullying him into bed, and also into collaborating with him, while David's best friend, a gay professor (John Pankow), is being ordered to find out how much he knows.
Year of the Gun feels a lot less like an American thriller than it does the sort of political action movie Europeans like Costa-Gavras and Francesco Rosi specialise in, perhaps beacuse Michael Mewshaw's novel was bought by producer Edward Pressman as a project for Jean-Jacques Beneix, who departed from the film after the deal had been set up, leaving Pressman to cast around for a director, hitting on Frankenheimer, whose career in the last twenty years has mainly involved duds like The Final War, on the grounds that the material was similar to his acknowledged greats, The Manchrian Candidate and Seven Days In May. In the event, and despite the low voltage casting of the central roles, the film is Frankenheimer's best in years, even if it does fall badly at the last fence.
The extremely complex background is skilfully and unnervingly evoked, and the gradual escalation of street violence allows for some very expert hand-held camera action scenes, and a few truly startling moments, as when a motorcycle-riding gunman shoots down the horse Stone is hiding behind to photograph him. All the characters are well drawn - even McCarthy isn't a total wash-out as a leading man, although Stone tails off dramatically after a good first impression - and the plot unravels itself in fairly gripping fashion. However, the last reel - which resurrects the old notion that any one unarmed American wimp is a match for any number of heavily-armed Italian terrorists - combines the cynical with the unsatisfying, and pays off with an unfortunately hilarious talk-show coda. Nevertheless, a thought-provoking and worthwhile picture.