The latest entry in the Quentin Tarantino wannabe canon is an item called Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, an ugly, derivative film about honor among thieves that is way too smug and clever for its own good. I've written in the past that Tarantino is a talented and extremely entertaining writer/director whose work has been essentially overrated by a clueless and adoring press. (Tarantino shoots great blaxploitation films for the 90s, straight up; that hardly makes him the next Orson Welles.) But Denver is the kind of copycat film that makes its model look absolutely brilliant. Good-looking couples often breed unattractive children; films like this one represent the hideous offspring of Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs.

Denver tells the story of a group of ex-cons, led by Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia), who are hired to scare off a man who is courting a woman who previously dated a crime king's idiot son. Why men of such talent and, in one case, viciousness, are needed to do a simple job like this one is never explained. Also unexplained is the group's ill-advised decision to go forward with the proposition in the first-place. But logic doesn't matter when you're only trying to advance a hackneyed plot. The only thing that does matter is that the men take the job, that the job goes horribly wrong, and that the crime king then must exact his revenge on the group.

To make his case, director Gary Fleder, trots out the usual suspects: Christopher Walken as the quadriplegic, ashen crime king; Steve Buscemi as the deadly little hit man dispatched to assassinate the bunch, etc. Add Treat Williams, a fallen former star making his “comeback” as a really crazy guy (Academy Members please note Mr. Williams' soliloquy on eating a turd in prison), and Faruza Balk (this year's Juliette Lewis) a looker who gets to play ugly as an arm-scratching, nosewipe-on-the-sleeve junkie, and you have it. And, man, you can keep it.

Things To Do In Denver When Your Dead would be an unremarkable but okay way to spend a couple of hours if not for the filmmakers' offensive insistence on romanticizing their thug characters in a faux-Damon Runyonesque way. You're supposed to love Christopher Lloyd's ex-con like you love your loser uncle (Lloyd rhapsodizes about his rendezvous with an expensive hooker “back in the day,” when he wore his “snap-brim hat” as he strutted into Parisian nightclubs), despite the fact that the character remorselessly shoots an innocent woman in the back of the head. Jimmy the Saint (“the Saint”—that Runyon thing again) is cool because he wears expensive suits, drives a red-on-red, ragtop Olds 98, drinks malts, and knows the secret handshake; he also guts a defenseless imbecile in the front seat of his ride. Treat Williams can't simply say that he was paid five hundred dollars to eat shit; he has to describe the sum as “five centuries.” The contract on the men, who are condemned to die in the most painful ways imaginable, is describes as “buckwheats”—over and over again. And all of the dead guys get together in a last-reel fantasy sequence for “boat drinks.” A reward, apparently, for a lifetime spent as murderers.

Director Fleder helms all this with a certain degree of style, set to a standards soundtrack that will thrill your average Cape Cod preppie and be ring-a-ding dull for everyone else. But the real culprit here is writer Scott Rosenberg who worships these guys but would most likely void his bowels if he ever met a real criminal face-to-face. Hey, Scott: I hate to break it to you, but criminals aren't hip, and they generally don't say clever things—this is because, for the most part, they're stupid and dull. By the way, they also kill innocent people. Next time you're at it, try selling your little-boy's vision of their cool-breeze “integrity” to the victim of a violent crime.

Reasons to see this film: William Forsythe, escaping with his rep by underplaying his role as a trailer-park con. Gabrielle Anwar, because she is beautiful.

Main reason not to see this film: complicity in its success might encourage more like it. Have we reached the end of the cycle yet?

-George Pelecanos


Filed Under: Film-DVD-VideoFilm-DVD-Video Reviews

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