Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Knockaround Guys (2001) *

Written & directed by Brian Koppelman & David Levien. Photography, Tom Richmond. Editing, David Moritz. Production design, Lester Cohen. Muisc, Clint Mansell. Produceresm Koppleman, Levien, Lawrence Bender. Cast: Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Seth Green, Andrew Davoli, John Malkovich, Dennis Hopper, Tom Noonan, Shawn Doyle, Kevin Gage. Released by New Line Cinema. 92 minutes. Rated R (extreme violence, language).

I was depressed by the trailers for coming attractions. They showed violence, cliches, cops, criminals, action, coarse, unimaginative film-making, somnambulistic acting, and all that brainless, dismal stuff that keeps making money for Hollywood--and for some of the worst independent movies too. My depression doubled as those new releases are for the "good" movie-months of the year, Fall through December.

The popularity of, and the public's fascination for extreme violence in films and on television is by and large a symptom of bad taste, indifference to culture, simple-mindedeness, love of cheap thrills, or of decadence that rivals that of ancient Rome's gladiatorial "games." Please note that I say "by and large." There have been excellent movies along those lines in a multitude of genres, from the early gangsters classics to the wave of earlier "films noirs," to the "Godfather" saga, to "Bonnie and Clyde," to good war films, to "Once upon a Time in America,""Once Upon a Time in the West," the moies of Sam Peckinpah and so on. The list is long. It is mostly one of unguilty pleasures with some guilty ones thrown in.

The big question is separating the wheat from the chaff...and this is happening less and less. In more recent times the problem has increased. There's something obscene about the production of bad films in an era of terrorism. My depression went from triple to quadruple with "Knockaround Guys" whose much postponed release coincides with the aftermath of the World Trade Center and with current attacks on American soldiers in Kuwait and elsewhere, as well as on a French ship in Yemen, on a sharpshooter's random killings in the D.C. vicinities, etc., and, to cap it all, the mass slaughter of innocents in Bali.

"Knockaround Guys" deals primarily with Brooklyn gangsters and focuses on their progeny. Matty Demaret (Barry Pepper) is the son of mobster Benny "Chains" Demaret (Dennis Hopper in a bad, two-expressions role.) Matty is first shown as a 12 or 13-year old taken by his father's right-hand man Uncle Teddy Deserve (John Malkovich) to a disgusting rite of passage. The kid's family (both in the ordinary sense and in the criminal one) doubts that the youngster is made of true mafioso stuff. To test him, Uncle Teddy leads Matty to a basement, gives him a gun and asks him to execute a fellow mobster who had betrayed Matty's dad. The kid flunks the test. Teddy pulls the trigger.

Let me state in passing that Malkovich's perfomance is of bargain basement quality and includes a set of phony accents. Also that the moniker "Uncle" is unexplained. It may be just an affectionate appellation. I mention this trivial point because loose ends, holes, nonsense and no-sense permeate the movie.

Cut to the next decade or more. 20-something Matty's dream is to be a sports agent but potential employers don't want to get involved with the son of "Chains." So Matty, obviously not a "a made" man, works for Dad and for Uncle but in minor ways. So he aspires to duties more substantial than an errand boy's. In a rare, funny bit of dialogue his father tells him, "You have a job. You brought us lunch." The fatal flaw here is that Matty, like a dove who wants to be a hawk, is out of his initial character.

Eventually, he talks Dad into giving him a manly task. He is sent to Spokane to bring back a bag with half-a-million dollars. But hings go wrong. Somehow Matty gets united with a bunch of his New York pals. Somehow they find themselves in the deepest boondocks of Nevada. Somehow they get involved with a nasty, corrupt, sheriff (Tom Noonan) who'll readily kill for money. Somehow there is a huge amount of gore and corpses. But nohow should you see this weak picture with its murky, incoherent story, its phonily dark moods, its brutality, and its performers who constantly make you conscious that they are actors acting, mostly poorly and as tired cliches.

The main culprits are the two writer-directors. This is their second film together as writers and their first as directors. Their previous credit was for "Rounders" (1998) which I would like to see as it was directed by John Dahl whose earlier works included the excellent films noirs "Red Rock West" and "The Last Seduction." "Knockaround," made in 1999, sat on a shelf released in Italy (2001), then in Europe (2002) and finally in North America (late 2002). Common logic dictates that its belated surfacing on the big screen was an attempt to cash in the new popularity of Vin Diesel, who has a supporting role here, bears a large tattoo of the Star of David, and whose name in other languages means Diesel Wine.

The movie was mostly shot in Canada's Alberta and Ontario. As a lover of the real Montana, I find that the ugly fake Montana is cause for boycotting the picture in that state.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel