In my past, I harbor a dream of a gritty onscreen world, conceived from crime fiction, B-movies, and popcorn ground into the sticky floors of The Plaza, a beloved movie theater that once stood proud on Pack Square in downtown Asheville, North Carolina. I remember afternoons when my mother would pick me up from school and ask me how I wanted to spend free time with her before going home for dinner and to finish whatever homework I had. Of course, she knew the answer; I think she just wanted to hear me say it.
And then, later on, the somewhat seedy spot became a getaway for my geeky gang of buddies when we wanted a diversion from the latest D&D campaign or summer jobs as we reached that stage of teenage life. The Plaza wasn’t one of the pristine shopping mall theaters, but it also never devolved into a triple-X den that everyone probably feared it might become. It was an old funhouse of stories. Kill or Be Killed. Kill and Kill Again. The Sword and the Sorcerer.
The Plaza closed, I believe, in early-May of 1985. I’m not definitely certain of the date, but I know the approximate time is accurate because my friends and I were in the house for the final screening. A midnight showing of Stick, a low-rent Burt Reynolds directed action flick based on a story from Elmore Leonard with Reynolds as the lead, Ernest “Stick” Stickley, a recently paroled felon who hooks up with an old friend and gets caught up in a drug-running situation that goes wrong, as these things often do. By this point, I hadn’t read any of Leonard’s work (that would come much later), but I liked the idea of Stick as the tough guy with a code.
I also continue to hang onto the idea of the movie and that place. The Plaza. We stayed there, after the house lights came up. The staff knew us and didn’t feel the need to rush us out. We meandered up to the balcony as they cleaned up one last time. I recall the sensation of each sticky step that night. I didn’t want to forget the grip the floors had on the bottom of my shoes, like somehow the place didn’t want us to leave.
The thing is I’m not sure, as you might have noticed, how much of my memory is rooted in the movie Stick. I don’t believe I have ever taken the time to watch it again. It was probably on cable or late-night television at some point after that theatrical run, but knowing myself, I likely refused to watch it again, fearing that I might sully that experience from The Plaza.
I thought about Stick and The Plaza recently while watching a streaming link for The Gateway from Michele Civetta. It was like Civetta and co-screenwriters Alex Felix Bendaña and Andrew Levitas somehow burrowed inside my memories and squeezed the gritty pulp out of my imagination and made it real. The movie is a return to the B-movie glory days of the 1970s and 1980s, when there were producers willing to roll the dice on a smaller budget with a familiar-enough face – one that’s lived and seen a few too many things go off the rails to merely be considered a “character” actor – and a penchant for exploring the darkness on the fringes of the near-pitch black side of town.
Enter Shea Whigham as Parker, a hardened social worker drawn to lost causes (because he’s obviously one himself). He keeps a protective eye out for kids and the single mothers struggling to keep their families together. One of Parker’s salvation jobs is Dahlia (Olivia Munn), a casino dealer with a young daughter and a husband named Mike (Zack Avery), recently released from prison who’s eager to get back to the grind with his old crew headed by Duke (Frank Grillo). Parker does what he can, from sometimes driving Dahlia’s daughter to school to staging interventions at the casino table to steer Dahlia onto something close to a righteous path.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize that Mike will have issues with Parker’s role in his family’s day-to-day life once he reinserts himself into the mix. And yes, Parker is a man without fear when it comes to sticking up for those he cares about. Munn and the daughter get sidelined a bit during the proceedings, but that’s mainly because The Gateway is unapologetically about Parker and the reckoning he’s about to face.
Whigham has been a character actor/punching bag over the course of his career, earning featured moments in The Fast and the Furious saga as the FBI colleague who literally butts heads with the rebellious Brian (Paul Walker) or a period chauvinist in Agent Carter. His filmography overflows with spots in what the current studio system would consider to be thrillers (True Detective, Boardwalk Empire, Savages, Sicario: Day of the Soldado), but he’s never had a meaningful opportunity to take the lead, until now.
And he doesn’t disappoint, even with a curious bit of mis-direction thanks to the casting of Grillo, another actor with tough-guy etched into every crease and wrinkle on his mug. Although in Grillo’s case, he’s gotten a few more chances to step into the spotlight (The Purge series, the last two Captain America films, Boss Level). His presence as a featured player led me to believe that Duke would be a more integral part of the narrative.
I can’t say I’m sorry to have missed out on more Grillo, because The Gateway provides Whigham with all he needed to announce himself as the pulpy anti-hero of my B-movie dreams. Civetta departs from the overly choreographed fisticuffs we’re given in the John Wick movies or Nobody; instead keeping things fast and furious and a whole lot messier. Parker isn’t an otherworldly avenging angel and maybe the point is we need fewer of those action icons and more hard-scrabble characters like Parker, which should mean more roles for Whigham. Hollywood could do far worse than to revel, for a real moment, in stories featuring ‘Whigham’ types. I know I would be quite happy to let him replace Reynolds in my very own update of Stick.
The Gateway is available on streaming platforms (Amazon Prime) and releasing internationally.