Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead (1995)
“They can die quickly. They can die slowly. But they must die!”
Director: Gary Fleder
Cast: Andy Garcia, Christopher Walken, Christopher Lloyd
Synopsis: Five different criminals face imminent death after botching a job quite badly.
The mid-1990s was certainly a good period for crime movies, with the likes of Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects drawing praise from critics everywhere. Gary Fleder’s stylish Noir-influenced Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead received more mixed reviews, and it’s not difficult to see why. While steeping itself in the culture of the criminal, it dresses its story in stylised dialogue and populates it with a cast of characters whom, with a few exceptions, are studiedly quirky. Like Andy Garcia in his sharp suits, it all looks slick and cool, but it ultimately ends up feeling a little shallow.
As if to signal its intent to be unique, the camera adopts the gaze of a paedophile in the movie’s opening scene as he drools over one of a trio of pony-tailed girls playing with a skipping rope in a school playground. When he climbs over the playground fence to get a closer look atf the girls he’s quickly subdued by a couple of teachers. It turns out that this perv is Bernard (Michael Nicolosi), the son of a vicious quadriplegic gang boss known only as The Man With the Plan (Christopher Walken — The Deer Hunter, Pulp Fiction). He believes that his son’s sudden predilection for pre-teen girls is a result of being dumped by his girlfriend, Meg (Sarah Trigger), and decides that she must be prevented from marrying Bruce (Josh Charles), the man for whom Bruce was dumped.
TMWTP decides that the best man to dissuade Bruce from marrying Meg is reformed criminal Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia — Smokin’ Aces, 5 Days of War), who now runs a failing business that films the terminally ill imparting pearls of wisdom to their loved ones so that their insight — ‘Life is like a mustard burp, momentarily tangy and then forgotten in the air,’ is a stand out — can remain for generations to come. Jimmy took out a loan to keep the business afloat, but now TMWTP owns the debt, and he more or less forces Jimmy to co-operate in his plan to get his son back together with Meg in return for writing off the debt.
Jimmy sets about getting his old partners in crime together, and as we watch him contacting each in turn, we know with unshakeable certainty that things can only go pear-shaped. Franchise (William Forsythe — 88 Minutes) is ok, although his wife gives Jimmy plenty of moody stares, and Easy Wind (Bill Nunn) is no fool, but Pieces (Christopher Lloyd — Back to the Future, Piranha 3D), who’s making a living as a projectionist in a porn cinema is suffering from some unnamed condition which sounds suspiciously like leprosy (he’s already lost two fingers and a toe), and Critical Bill (Treat Williams) only keeps himself on the right side of insane by using the corpses that pass through the funeral parlour where he works for punchbags. Jimmy might still have got away with the plot to scare Bruce out of Meg’s life if he’d had Franchise and Easy Wind pose as the cops who pull Bruce over on a deserted road, but instead he sends the leper and the madman. When Bruce sees through the duo’s disguise and begins baiting Critical, it’s only a matter of time before he’s dead. Then, when Meg unexpectedly emerges from the back of the truck Bruce was driving, Pieces is startled enough to accidentally shoot her in the head.
If ever there was an example of style over substance, Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead was it. The movie looks terrific, and the ridiculously handsome Mr. Garcia looks sleek and elegant as the meticulously garbed Jimmy the Saint. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t really hold up under close scrutiny; screenwriter Scott Rosenberg seems incapable of allowing one character or incident to pass without attempting to inject each with some element of quirkiness, until we begin to feel bombarded. He also has his characters speak in stylised dialogue that doesn’t really sound too much different from the authentic slang spoken by Scorsese’s mobsters in Goodfellas and Casino. So why, we can only wonder, did he bother? It’s a device that comes across as an affectation, even though the dialogue is, on occasion, fairly sharp.
Perhaps the strongest thing about Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is the cast that Fleder assembled. In addition to those already mentioned, there’s Steve Buscemi (Reservoir Dogs, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) on form as a legendary assassin named Mr Shhh who’s unleashed upon Jimmy and his friends by The Man with the Plan when they botch the job, and a snowy-haired Jack Warden (12 Angry Men, Escape from Zahrain) as a kind of one-man Greek Chorus who comments — somewhat unnecessarily, it has to be said — on the events as they unfold.
Although Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead is never boring — even though it does lose its way a little after the botched job — it takes all Garcia’s charisma to hold things together. He rises to the challenge well, despite being given a character who really is too saintly to be true and who spends far too much of his time gazing dolefully at other characters as if measuring them up against his own high standards and finding them constantly wanting.
(Reviewed 14th July 2014)