knockaround guys (2001)


directors: brian koppelman, david levien

barry pepper, vin diesel, seth green, john malkovich, dennis hopper

Mob movies were once about tough guys and the deadly wages of sin, but that was a long time ago, and ever since The Godfather, mob films have become Family dramas. The Sopranos is probably the wittiest exploration of the genre, but a film like Knockaround Guys hints that the theme might finally have played itself out.

Matty Demaret (Barry Pepper) is the indulged son of Benny "Chains" Demaret, a Brooklyn mob boss played with unusual restraint by Dennis Hopper. Matty, like any son, longs for his father's approval, so he begs his dad's lieutenant (John Malkovich, masticating a character part with customary relish) for a chance, and ends up with a simple transportation gig, picking up a bag of money on the West Coast and bringing it home, via his dimwit buddy Marbles and his private plane. Of course things go wrong, and Matty and his crew end up in a small Montana town to retrieve their cash from a pair of potheads.

It's a perfect, if predictable, set-up for a comedy, where the hayseeds outsmart the wiseguys, but that's not what directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien have in mind. Matty, with his best friend and enforcer Taylor (Vin Diesel, in precisely the sort of role tailored for his particular limitations as an actor) pressure the town with a bit of muscle, and the town - in the shape of a corrupt sheriff economically played by Tom Noonan - pushes back, happy start a little gang war on the prairie.

By the time Malkovich and a crew of heavies show up to straighten things out, any hint of lightness has abandoned the film, and the ricocheting double-crosses that decimate the cast in the last half hour leave us with Matty's anemic daddy complex and little else. Knockaround guys has little of The Godfather's moral gravity, and none of The Sopranos' leisurely character studies, so we're left with sharp suits and a lot of guns. Much more will be needed to stop the mob film from becoming as overplayed as the western.