‘Son of a Gun” begins in a prison in Perth, Australia, with 19-year-old JR (Brenton Thwaites) facing his first incarceration for a minor crime. He realizes, from the sight of a terrorized and sodomized cellmate, that things are going to get ugly pretty quickly. He cuts his pretty-boy hair and keeps his eyes down, but it soon becomes clear that he’s next in line to become some tattooed ogre’s punk.

His one hope is protection, which is offered by Brendan (Ewan McGregor), a chess-playing con doing hard time, who looks a bit more thoughtful than most but leads his own intimidating crew of lunatics. Knowing that JR is only serving a short sentence, Brendan offers him a deal: His gang will take care of JR on the inside, but he then has to work for them on the outside.

By this point, “Son of a Gun” is feeling very much like an Aussie version of Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (2009), especially with its theme of a young, vulnerable kid taken under the wing of an abusive father figure in prison. Midway through, however, director/writer Julius Avery abandons the gritty prison realism of Audiard for the gleaming beachside villas, impossibly glamorous molls and heavy-firepower heists of vintage Michael Mann (“Heat,” “Miami Vice”).

Son of a Gun (Guns and Gold)
Director Julius Avery
Run Time 108 minutes
Language English
Opens Nov. 1

JR hooks up with Brendan’s contact on the outside, Sam (Jacek Koman), a deceptively jovial Russian Mafia boss who first sets up a jailbreak and then makes Brendan and his crew an offer they can’t refuse: help pull off an armed robbery at a gold-bar manufacturing plant. Tension develops between JR, a romantic who is more interested in sultry strip club bar girl Tasha (Alicia Vikander) than taking risks, and the increasingly demanding Brendan, who insists that women only bring trouble, as anyone who watches gangster movies knows — “Never trust a woman or an automatic pistol,” as John Dillinger once put it.

Avery’s plot gets increasingly hackneyed as it goes on, and soon degenerates into something that feels like the product of attending too many screenwriting seminars, where the childhood parental issue introduced in Act Two is all too neatly re-enacted and resolved in Act Three.

It’s all a bit too trite, especially when compared to “A Prophet,” but the suspense gets ratcheted up nicely and the leads are all pleasant to look at. (Thwaites played a fairy tale prince in “Maleficent,” while Vikander played Kitty in “Anna Karenina” in 2012.)

The biggest pleasure by far might be getting to see McGregor play the heavy for a change. He undercuts the menace with flashes of intelligence and occasional kindness, and keeps us guessing as to what Brendan’s ultimate motives are. McGregor rarely goes astray, and his performance in “Son of a Gun” anchors the film, which is solid if not groundbreaking.

Avery has a career ahead of him, but may do better with other people’s scripts.

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