It's hard to decide whether The Sopranos or Grosse Pointe Blank has had the greater influence, but comically neurotic hitmen are all the rage. The execrable Whole Nine Yards aside, Hollywood has discovered the comic potential of murderers-for-hire and redefined the notion of "gallows humor." While the sexy super psychos in James Bond, Mission: Impossible and Jason Bourne movies are all brooding business and high-tech machismo, low-rent killers like Pierce Brosnan in The Matador and, now, Ben Kingsley in You Kill Me wrestle with everyday hurdles like emotional inaccessibility and alcoholism.
Take Kingsley's Frank Falenczyk, a monosyllabic triggerman for the Polish mob in Buffalo. Frank's drinking problem has started to interfere with his work. In particular, he screws up killing rival Irish mob boss Edward O'Leary (Dennis Farina), who has started muscling in on the family business. Furious, Uncle Roman (Philip Baker Hall) sends Frank to San Francisco to get off the hooch and into AA. It's a questionable location choice, but Frank gets with the program, finds an affable gay toll collector (Luke Wilson) for a sponsor, works part time at a mortuary, and starts dating the jaded but sexy Laurel (Tea Leoni). Unfortunately, the siren's call of booze and a brewing turf war back home threaten to ruin Frank's chances for both recovery and romance.
After years of floundering in Hollywood genre flicks, John Dahl (Rounders, The Great Raid) has returned to his black comedy noir roots and delivered his best film in years. Though You Kill Me lacks the acidic sizzle of Red Rock West or The Last Seduction, Dahl is in familiar territory, mixing wry humor and crime-drama to good effect.
Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely's contrived script is filled with the kind of self-aware quirks that impress studio heads and launch careers (but rarely get made). In Dahl's hands, however, their predictable plot turns snap and pop with energy while a breezy understated veneer turns the ridiculous plausible. Dahl gets wonderfully spontaneous performances from his cast and actually approaches Frank's addiction with surprising empathy. Most directors would milk the alcoholism for easy laughs but Dahl lets his characters' reactions make the comedy. Frank's no-nonsense response to an overweight woman who attempts to justify her cookie addiction is as real as it is hilarious.
While the supporting actors are definitely cast to type, their performances generate real humor, tension and warmth. The real heat is reserved, of course, for the film's two stars. Frank is a terrifically low-key creation and while I can't attest to Kingsley's Buffalo drawl, his world-weary and mordantly funny killer manages to earn our affection while convincing us of his lethality. Leoni, on the other hand, can play the brittle but witty urban woman in her sleep. She's never less than engaging.
Like Dahl's early thrillers, You Kill Me's plot doesn't really hold up to scrutiny and its second half never fully delivers on its promising premise, still, amid the sound and fury of the summer film season, it's well worth seeking out ... if only for Dahl's wicked skewering of the romantic montage scene as Frank lovingly teaches Laurel to kill using a watermelon and a carving knife.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.