Okay, metaphor buffs: An Albino Alligator, we're informed in the movie of that name, is what the other alligators in a group send out as a sacrificial lamb. Members of another group of gators attack the albino, and the remainder of the first group violently dispatches their competition for their own fun and profit.
Once this is explained in the movie, you know it's inevitably no more than a few reels before some self-(pre)serving bloodshed goes down. But it's kind of a clunky stretch for an elucidation of the human condition, not to mention a not-terribly-evocative title, even once you know what it means. Given how otherwise polished this production is, you'd think the filmmakers would have managed a better central symbol.
Oh, well. Albino Alligator is the directorial debut of Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, who, according to media reports, is very cool (we shan't hold that against him). It stars Matt Dillon, Gary Sinise and William Fichtner as a trio of punks who bungle a robbery and, after escaping Johnny Law, cool their heels in a nicely art-directed New Orleans dive. Soon a battery of cops, led by Browning (Joe Mantegna), have surrounded the joint, sending them into a grisly panic. Imagine their surprise when it turns out the cops aren't even after them.
Clever enough premise, and although this is essentially a one-set piece, Spacey's energetic camera work prevents this from seeming merely a filmed play. He directs as he acts -- with a certain witty elan. One shot, for example, follows a character's path, then stops, focused on a dart board; the camera lingers there for what begins to feel like too long, then a hand reaches into the frame and quickly plucks a dart from the board, and we move to the next shot. Spacey's aided to a great extent by his director of photography, Mark Plummer, whose colors and lighting transform this into a gritty mood piece. And although the story contains some pretty brutal violence, Spacey is intelligently circumspect about portraying it -- we get the idea how unpleasant this all is without him having to revel in it, as a lot of directors seem to do these days.
Alas, a gritty mood piece is pretty much all this manages to be. Screenwriter Christian Forte manages some clever twists and turns of phrase, but ultimately it's a fairly schematic exercise. Check out the trio of burglars -- Dova (Dillon) is the charismatic leader; Milo (Sinise), Dova's brother, is the heart and the brains of the group, who insists on avoiding violence at any cost; Law (Fichtner) is a friggin' sociopath who delights in dispensing mayhem. Why would Milo even agree to be in an alliance with someone like Law except to establish some perfunctory character friction?
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The bar's other denizens are likewise archetypes. Janet (Faye Dunaway) is a blowzy, seen-it-all waitress. Jack (John Spencer) just likes to drink and bluster. Danny (Skeet Ulrich) is the type who in genre pictures generally gets called "the kid." Guy (Viggo Mortensen) is a disagreeable French Canadian. Dino (M. Emmet Walsh), the bar's owner, is an M. Emmet Walsh type. And Browning is a standard-issue glib law-enforcement type more often found in glossy entertainments than in real life, though he has the film's funniest moment, acceding impertinently to a TV interview request.
Despite the thinness of the characters, Spacey gets the most from his actors -- Dillon, for one, hasn't been this watchable in years. Albino Alligator is a breeze to sit through as it wings toward its inexorable conclusion. Unfortunately, once we get there, it's neither as chilling nor as resonant as it's supposed to be and therefore feels a bit of a cheat. Which is probably how that albino alligator feels about being used as a decoy.
Directed by Kevin Spacey. With Matt Dillon, Faye Dunaway, Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna.