Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead

Slickly made, Gary Fleder's Things To Do in Denver When You're Dead recounts the ill-fated reunion of yet another ruthless and movieish gang.

Reportedly, screenwriter Scott Rosenberg made a bet with Tarantino, promising to give him $10 for every review of the movie that did not mention Tarantino's name. The reasons for the inevitable comparisons are abundant: the familiar milieu of organized crime, the tough-guy heroes, the snappy, self-conscious macho talk.

Though the film doesn't feel like a personal work, it was meant to be. The death of Rosenberg's father from cancer allegedly inspired the story of a man with another kind of death sentence, a man who's the target of a hit. “This guy is incredibly decent, and he becomes part of the lore,” Rosenberg explained. “He's spoken of in heroic terms, which is how I always talk about my father. There are guys who are so successful and make so much money, and they're miserable pricks and not a tear is shed at their funeral. My movie is about the value of a man.”

The mythically named hero Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is a former seminarian who first soured on the church and then on crime. He hangs out in a malt shop, 'Thick 'n Rich,' and runs a dubious video operation, “Afterlife Advice (“Just Because They're Gone Doesn't Mean They Can't Guide”), in which dying parents record their advice for their survivors. A rhapsodic talker, Jimmy is a wizard with a slang laced with words like “buckwheats” and “boatdrinks.”

Fleder and Rosenberg take the conventional themes of loyalty and honor and try to twist them in darkly humorous ways. Its gallery of characters includes a bluff narrator (Jack Warden) and a terrifying crime lord known as the “Man With the Plan” (Christopher Walken), who became paraplegic in an attempted rubout. The most artificial and preposterous figure is a hoodlum named Critical Bill (Treat Williams), so named for leaving everyone he meets in critical condition. A mortuary driver who uses corpses as punching bags (“I haven't touched a live person in years,” he says), Critical Bill reveals a guileless boyish quality that covers his psychopathic actions with an eerie calm.

Trying to correct the genre's bias against women, Fleder creates a romantic interest in the figure of Dagney (Gabrielle Anoir), a ski instructor whom Jimmy pursues with seductive lines like, “Girls who glide need guys who make them thump.” Juggling different roles, all at the same time, Jimmy tries to manage his fragile relationship with Dagney, look after his crew, and in a subplot lifted from Taxi Driver, straighten out a troubled hooker, Lucinda (Fairuza Balk in the Jodie Foster's role).

The plot kicks into high gear when the powerful Man With the Plan, who dotes on his son Bernard, asks Jimmy to put a scare into the boyfriend of Bernard's former girl. “It's just an action, not a piece of work,” he says, meaning no one is to get killed. To do the job, Jimmy rounds up the usual suspects from the old days, including Franchise (William Forsythe), a tattooed trailer park manager. Not surprisingly, things go wrong, as they always do in such movies.

The film is directed in a brisk, stylish manner, but the talented performers can't propel the film over its rough spots. Excessively graphic violence–bloody shoot-outs and brutal beatings–assumes centerstage, accentuating all the more the senseless central plot.

As a noir comedy, Things to Do in Denver flaunts its arrogant style, but like The Usual Suspects, it's hollow at the center.