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Wickedly clever and utterly phony, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead might be likable if only it weren’t so self-impressed. It’s sort of a cross between Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects, but either of those films looks unassuming by comparison. Director Gary Fleder and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg want to have it all, but what they end up with is way too much.
As is typical of post-Reservoir Dogs gangster flicks, this is the story of some thugs (much tougher than Bottle Rocket’s tyros) who get it spectacularly wrong. With these thugs, though, what other possibility is there? Ringleader Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) is presented as so suave he might walk on water—more than saintly, he’s almost Christlike—but the other mugs he retrieves from retirement to do an “action” for The Man With the Plan (Christopher Walken playing a wheelchair-bound version of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet) might as well list “loser” as their occupation.
The only halfway sane ones are Easy Wind (Bill Nunn) and Franchise (William Forsythe), and you know the latter is doomed because he has a wife who doesn’t want him to return to the underworld. Then there’s Pieces (Christopher Lloyd), a porno-theater projectionist who’s losing his fingers and toes to an unexplained disease, and Critical Bill (Treat Williams), a maniacal mortuary assistant who uses corpses as punching bags. Theirs is a simple assignment—scare off the fiancée of the woman who’s won the heart of The Man’s retarded son—but they’re just the guys to screw it up. Jimmy even allows the dangerously unpredictable Critical Bill to be on the front line, where he’s virtually guaranteed to crack.
That’s a mistake, but maybe it occurs because Jimmy is distracted. The proprietor of a failing business, Afterlife Advice, that videotapes elders’ messages to their heirs, Jimmy has just met the woman of his dreams. Inexplicably named Dagney and played by Gabrielle Anwar, this blank beauty exists entirely in the gaze of a slick-talking older man (as Anwar also did in Scent of a Woman). Jimmy mesmerizes her with florid patter, and she falls hard. But then all women love Jimmy. Local teen-junkie hooker Lucinda (Fairuza Balk) wants to have his baby, and he—more saintliness, this—bursts into a corporate meeting to thrash the john who left Lucinda black and blue.
There’s more. After Jimmy and his losers blow the assignment, The Man sends for a hit man (Steve Buscemi) to eliminate Jimmy’s four unfortunate associates. (The killer also beats up some racist skinheads just for fun.) Jimmy’s told that he’ll live, as long as he gets out of town in 48 hours. He wants to save the others, though, which puts his own survival at risk. As if that weren’t enough to occupy him, Jimmy also has to see to the future happiness of Dagney and Lucinda.
Partially narrated by a malt-shop raconteur (Jack Warden), Denver revels in its tough talk and made-up gangster jargon: “boat drinks,” “buckwheats,” and “give it a name,” these guys keep saying to each other. (Eventually, the first two are explained.) Further macho liveliness is provided by a steady stream of homophobic taunts, as well as Bill’s definitive explanation of how he picked up the tag “fecal freak.” (You may not want to know.) Every one of these punks is awfully proud of something, which is fitting: Fleder and Rosenberg seem mighty proud of themselves, too.
That’s not entirely unjustified. Denver is taut and nimble, if overblown, and may well charm admirers of the new-gangster genre. The film’s enthusiasm for Denver’s underbelly is decadent indulgence, though, and, whether good or evil, its characters are live-action cartoons. The film seems almost giddy, and it’s not with the delight of filmmakers who’ve found their own vision. Rather, Fleder and Rosenberg have taken a well-tested formula and simply pumped up the volume.CP