There’s a holy grail of illusions that many magicians and tricksters aspire to, but few have the guts to go through with it. An assistant shoots a bullet at a magician, and the illusionist catches it either in the hand or mouth. Over the past century, the trick has been performed thousands of times successfully, but it has also killed twenty magicians in the process. It’s so dangerous that Harry Houdini, probably the most death-defying magician to ever live, never went though with even attempting it. Toronto magician and motivational speaker Scott Hammell has often thought about trying the trick, but he’s finally goaded into doing it by Victoria, B.C. television writer, producer and poet Chris Gudgeon. Friends for a long time, Scott agrees to perform the trick with the gun, but only if the inexperienced Gudgeon agrees to pull the trigger. The twenty week lead-up to the February 2015 performance, however, will severely test their friendship.

An entertaining look at the history and practice of magic, Michael McNamara’s The Trick with the Gun (screening for one night only at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema with a live magic performance before debuting On-Demand on Friday, November 20, 2015 and on Super Channel, December 8, 2015 at 9:00 pm), offers a great deal of welcome insight into a supposedly cursed trick. Never straying from the task at hand or the relationship between Chris and Scott, McNamara tightly constructs a “behind the curtain” documentary without giving up any of the real secrets or wonders behind the core concept.

The history behind the performance of the gun gag is fascinating stuff, especially when talking about the numerous anecdotal times the trick went awry for various reasons (but usually tied to a pissed off assistant). McNamara also allows Hammell and Gudgeon to narrate the story in equal amounts, allowing for a unique set of conflicting narrators to inhabit the film. It’s commonplace in fictional films, but in a documentary about deception, it’s a novel twist.

McNamara mostly adheres to the warring nature of the friends’ personalities. Hammell is understandably a perfectionist and a professional about the preparation needed since his life is on the line. Gudgeon wants to be kept in the dark as much as possible to preserve the wonder of the illusion, but pissily balks at signing a non-disclosure agreement and barely ever heads to the gun range to perfect his shooting skills. The kinship and the frustrations are both very easy to see.

It’s fun to think for a while that McNamara and Hammell have been gaming the viewer all along into some sort of twist, but the film only becomes a let down in its final few minutes. Without giving away “the prestige,” the twist turns out to be that there really wasn’t much of a twist. For all his insecurities and flare ups, Gudgeon ends up looking better than Hammell, and I’m not quite convinced that’s the overall intent here. It’s a straightforward ending, but also a bit of a head scratcher; one that’s not really the fault of the filmmaker but of one of the main subjects.

Is The Trick with the Gun screening worthy?

Despite the last ten minutes or so feeling a bit off, yes. I’m admittedly a sucker for films about magic, and the other 80 minutes that proceed the ending are pretty great.

The Trick with the Gun screens Thursday, November 19, 2015 at 6:30 pm at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Check their website for more information. There is also a post film Q&A and magic performance with Scott Hammell and Chris Gudgeon.

The Trick with the Gun trailer