Saturday, April 28, 2007

Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead

This film seems to keep cropping up in my mind just lately. I've mentioned it a couple of times on my blogs and once on someone else's in the last few weeks.

It seems to be something of an unregarded gem, barely 10 years old yet largely forgotten.

It's a marvellous script, full of teasing paradoxes, and excellently played by a top-notch cast. The lead character, Jimmy 'The Saint' (one of Andy Garcia's best roles), seems too good-hearted to be a gangster: he is revered by everyone for his decency, loyalty, and kindness. Yet a gangster he is, or has been: beneath the charming, affable exterior you occasionally glimpse the steeliness of purpose, the ruthlessness, the capacity for sudden, effective violence. He has retired from the criminal world and is now running a legitimate business making videos of old or terminally ill people in which they can leave last messages and life wisdom for their loved ones. Rather as in 'When Harry Met Sally' the film is interspersed with snippets of these videos, which comment obliquely on the unfolding story, and which are often very touching; indeed, they do seem as if they might be genuine 'last testaments' of the dying rather than scripted elements of the film.

Jimmy's loyalty proves to be his tragic flaw. Recruited to carry out one more - rather unusual - 'action' by the local crime boss (a wonderfully sinister Christopher Walken), he reunites his old 'crew', an eccentric collection of losers, because he realises they need the money. When the job goes horribly wrong, the wrathful crime lord (a quadriplegic, known only by the nickname 'The Man With The Plan') orders a hit on the whole lot of them as an example. Jimmy has the chance to flee town, but sticks around to try to warn his friends - so he and they become like the clients of the video business, people who suddenly know that their days, hours are numbered. When you know you're going to die, your life comes into perspective, you realise what the really important things are. It's a wonderful premise, an unexpected examination of some very serious themes. For a film that is predominantly quirky and humorous, almost at times a black comedy, its lingering impression is very sombre.

There are so many delightful oddities in this film: it's set in Denver (Has any film ever been set in Denver before, let alone a gangster film?); the nameless godfather is still running his criminal empire from a wheelchair; Jimmy's 'HQ' is in a soda shop rather than a bar, and a nostalgic narration is provided by one of the elderly regulars there; Jimmy and his land-locked colleagues share a fantasy of a sundrenched retirement in the Florida Keys; the superhumanly efficient assassin - known only as 'Mr Shhh', because he's so soft-spoken - called in to wipe the boys out proves to be a nerdy, dishevelled Steve Buscemi. (Here's an interesting aside - Has Steve Buscemi ever been in a bad film? I can't think of one.)

It's chock-full of brilliant, quotable dialogue. Garcia's chat up of Gabrielle Anwar is probably the best seduction ever placed on film. And then there's Critical Bill. Critical Bill is the reason everything goes wrong. He's wildly unstable, a bit of a psychopath (he has a job in a funeral parlour, and works out by using cadavers as punchbags); and yet - as brilliantly played by Treat Williams - he's also a strangely sweet, vulnerable character, and you can sort of understand why his friends tolerate his dangerous unpredictability. At one point he ambushes an enemy, leaping out from behind a door and whaling into him with a baseball bat while screaming, "I am Godzilla, you are Japan!" My favourite battlecry!!

IMDB annoys me. It's the democracy of the imbecilic. (HOW can twee, manipulative, predictable, overlong 'Shawshank Redemption' be the highest-rated film??) So far, 'Things To Do In Denver' has only 8,000 ratings on the site and a ridiculously low average of 6.5. It should be at least 1 to 1.5 points higher than that. ('Shawshank' on the other hand has a 9.2; should be about 4 lower!) A call to action, my friends. Right this wrong. Watch 'Things To Do In Denver' and then go and give it the rating it deserves.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. Things to do in Denver is one of my best film of Andy Garcia. He is now my most favourite actor. This film is hugely under-rated. I would give it 10. One thing I don't understand why Jimmy had to kill the son of the crime boss? Is it because he does not want him to suffer any more? When Jimmy took his girlfriend for the first date, the scene at the restaurant is the most romantic scene I have ever seen on film.

Froog said...

Tut, tut, Anonymous, that is what they call A SPOILER. However, I don't suppose it matters too much, since NOBODY reads the comments on my blog.

Yes, the ending of the film is strange, troubling - deliberately enigmatic, I think.

Anonymous said...

Aack! I haven't seen the movie yet! (averting eyes from comment and employing handy 'poor memory' tool).