Suicide Kings (1997)

D: Peter O'Fallon
S: Christopher Walken, Henry Thomas, Denis Leary

Four young men from affluent backgrounds kidnap a mobster when the sister of one of them is held for ransom by lowlife mafiosoi. Their plan is to use his underworld connections to get her released. They set up shop in a friend's father's summer home and allow him limited access to a telephone to arrange things. During the night he plays them off against one another while, after he has passed on a message via his lawyer, his henchman pursues leads which will bring him to them.

Not bad thriller with slight comic elements benefits greatly from its tasty premise and the spot on casting of Christopher Walken as the mobster and Denis Leary as his hard case henchman. Unfortunately the small army of scriptwriters including John Sanford (upon whose story it is based) spend too much time plotting an elaborate series of confrontations and twists and fail to bring out the thematic and dramatic elements which would have deepened it. Director Peter O'Fallon handles the action well, especially given its limited setting and the strong possibility of becoming stagebound, but the reliance on expository flashbacks and cutaways to Leary's only tangentially relevant path of pursuit tends to dissipate the tension. It's a tightrope walk admittedly, and the film does retain interest and build a reasonable amount of suspense, but by the time its overbusy resolution weighs in, the film has abandoned itself to the possibilities of narrative mechanics and lost sight of the moral implications of the situation.

Like Shallow Grave, the film offers a group of friends torn apart by the choices they make under duress. In this case the catalyst (or even antagonist) is Walken, whose superior experience in crime and ability to judge the motivations of human beings is put to savage use on the initially strong bond between them. The younger actors are given relatively interesting characters to develop: Henry Thomas (E.T.) is the stressed-out brother who speculates on his sister's fate; Jay Mohr plays the control-freak ringleader whose 'perfect plan' fails to account for their own inadequacies; Jeremy Sisto (Clueless) is the ersatz doctor who keeps Walken topped up on drugs while indulging in a few himself on the side; Sean Patrick Flanery is the distraught boyfriend who was witness to the kidnapping and who, as the night goes on, consumes more that his fair share of alcohol. Adding to their problems is Johnny Galecki as the harried would-be man of the house whose plans for the evening had not included babysitting a dangerous mobster while his companions run amok with his father's good and property. Laura Harris appears briefly as the kidnap victim.

Each actor does a good job from scene to scene, though Mohr's character is not given much grounding or motivation and is not credible as a result. The main problem is that the film's eagerness to throw in everything but the kitchen sink in the way of plot means that these characters tend to lose their centres (apart from Galecki, who gives the most sustained characterisation of the five). The possibilities for human drama are abandoned to the demands of 'gee whiz' one liners and 'what next?' twists, to the point where Leary's becomes the most convincing character in the film because the single-mindedness of his pursuit allows us to learn more about him from the way he goes about it. Cliff De Young and Laura San Giacomo turn up in support, but they are really just part of the scenery. Because the motivations of the younger characters are unclear, cloudy or redefined as suits the script, they never mature or generate a genuine feeling of tragedy and betrayal. The film remains irritatingly sketchy, and does not so much rise to a climax as arrive at a point where one has to be cooked up to finish it off, and the result is not entirely satisfying.

For all that the film moves along swiftly and entertainingly, Walken is wonderful and there are many nice scenes. From moment to moment, Suicide Kings delivers what it needs to keep you watching, and when it plays out its shaggy dog story ending, you're left with the feeling of having seen a cinematic equivalent of an Agatha Christie novel; an intriguing but frustratingly superficial puzzle game which is fun to watch but far from meaningful. It is more disappointing than it is bad, because the basics are there and the potential is obvious, it just refuses to take that step into real drama. Instead it stays in the wasteland of mediocre theatrics where it is safe and easy to digest without ever challenging its audience. Its moral argument is limited to pop-psychology sound bites and its sense of character remains locked within its own narrative space. There is no great drama here, and the film generates no real emotion. It leaves you amused, but not enriched. For some this might be enough, and it will fill a few hours on a slow night on video, but for others it will prove less than the sum of its parts. It is worth watching, but don't expect much nourishment.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.