Pulling off a caper requires cunning. Pulling off a caper movie requires cunning and artistry, especially in an era when special effects have made film reality suspect. First, the moviemaker has to convince an audience that he's laid his cards on the table. Then he has to reshuffle and switch decks without anybody noticing. And when he finally shows his hand, he has to make viewers feel had and happy -- outwitted, not simply tricked. The Usual Suspects was the last movie to follow that three-step program spectacularly well.
Suicide Kings stumbles between the first and second steps. The story has an adequate hook. A gang of overgrown preppies (Jay Mohr, Henry Thomas, Sean Patrick Flanery and Jeremy Sisto) kidnap a retired New York crime boss (Christopher Walken) so he'll help them out of a jam. A couple of thugs have kidnapped Thomas's sister (who's also Flanery's girlfriend) -- for a $2 million ransom. The buddies figure that Walken still has enough juice to intimidate the kidnappers or pay them off, though he has no connection to the original crime or to any of "the boys." (He's even deracinated his name from Carlo Bartolucci to Charlie Barrett.) But instead of twisting that hook, the first-time feature director, Peter O'Fallon, overloads it with jokes and gimmicks about the inability of these well-bred layabouts to do anything right.
Of course, nobody messes this badly with a movie Mafioso and gets away with it. But no one told these guys, who are a cross between the characters from the Billionaire Boys Club and the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. For one thing, they don't brief their hideout man on the plan; this poor schnook (Johnny Galecki) thinks he's opening up his parents' suburban mansion for a poker party. (Among the young'uns, Galecki's hilarious high dudgeon takes the acting honors, even though his nerdy dithering eventually wears you out.)
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For another, there's the matter of the finger. Even if you're willing to accept the other absurdities, this pesky little digit is apt to stick in your craw. They cut off Walken's ring finger, ostensibly to avenge an identical outrage perpetrated on Thomas's sister. They think that their eye-for-an-eye attitude will make Walken and his friends take them more seriously. But they slice away before they know whether they have to do any more persuading -- indeed, they detach Walken's finger as soon as they take him into custody. The slowly-pulled-into-focus plot features a double-cross followed by a triple-cross; it should gain new shadings with every blood-splash, and should satisfy, not snooker, an audience when the picture becomes dark-crystal clear. The act of cutting off that finger, however, grows more important and more nonsensical (given the pedigree of the characters) as the film goes on. At the end you want to ram it down the screenwriters' throats.
Director O'Fallon, who previously worked on such acclaimed TV series as Northern Exposure and Party of Five, has an accomplished pointillist technique. He nails every queasy detail or suggestion, and achieves chaotic terror when the guys struggle with Walken as they hurtle through the Holland Tunnel. Too bad. By the time we get to the abortive big scene of Walken reciting each of his kidnappers' character flaws, O'Fallon's hyped-up clarity merely underlines the bludgeoning style of the script. And the flashback involving Flanery and Thomas's sister descends into the slick, febrile world of Fox TV. Suicide Kings is named for the wild cards in a poker game, but it plays like Tarantino 90210.
The movie has a few funny, lifelike bits -- like Walken advising his lawyer, "Whatever you do, don't send your kids to boarding school," or that sizzling street wit Denis Leary, as Walken's unruly but righteous number one man, defending his purchase of shoes made from the skin of a stingray. But there aren't enough of them. Even the stuff about the finger would be easier to take if the move as a whole were more offhand.
Directed by Peter O'Fallon. With Christopher Walken, Jay Mohr, Henry Thomas, Sean Patrick Flanery, Jeremy Sisto and Johnny Galecki.