The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, August 16, 2010

Knockaround Guys

Gangsters and mobsters have been in movies dating back to Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney and many others in the 1930s, and since then have never really left popular culture.  There have been lulls here and there, but other flicks like The Godfather trilogy have a way of bringing them back.  There's so many gangster/mobster stories you start seeing repeats, almost the same movie made over and over again.  Released in 2001, Knockaround Guys revels in some of those genre conventions, but adds a cool twist as a topper.

With the exception of The Godfather, most mobster movies deal with just that...the mobsters.  'Knockaround' goes deeper than that, exploring the effects and consequences of growing up in a mafia family.  Through no fault of your own, growing up just became that much more difficult because of your last name, not because of who you are as a person.  Al Pacino's Michael Corleone embraced the life his father tried to keep away from him, basically becoming his father.  The main character in 'Knockaround' wants to be that guy, but it doesn't come as easy to him, putting him in quite the situation.

As a low-level operator for his underboss dad (Dennis Hopper), Matty Demaret (Barry Pepper) is fed up.  He can't get a job because of his name, and his father won't entrust him with anything important. With some help from his also-connected uncle (John Malkovich), Matty finally gets approval from his father to do a job, a simple pick-up and deliver. Matty gets his friend and pilot, Johnny Marbles (Seth Green), to fly to Spokane and pick up a bag brimming with cash that needs to be delivered on time. The worst happens though when Marbles loses the bag while refueling the plane in an isolated Montana town.  Matty is forced to fly out to try and find the bag or pay the consequences, bringing along two friends, Taylor (Vin Diesel) and Scarpa (Andrew Davoli) along for help.  But the clock is ticking, and the money bag is nowhere to be found.

At a brisk 92 minutes, this is a streamlined story that doesn't waste time with any unnecessary subplots or characters that serve no purpose.  The premise of a youngster trying to prove himself is nothing new and can apply to just about any movie genre out there, it just translates well to crime, mobsters and murder generally.  There's nothing spectacular at all about this movie.  It just flows along without trying to deliver a message or blow you away with huge twists.  For all those reasons, I actually liked the movie a lot more than I would expect.  Things fall apart a bit in the last 20 minutes or so, but with the right mix of story, character and a dose of black humor, I liked this movie.  Loved it? No, but it's worth a watch.

The biggest appeal here will be the strong casting, both the stars and the supporting parts that amount to cameos.  Barry Pepper has been one of my favorite character actors ever since I saw him as the god-fearing sniper in Saving Private Ryan, and here as the lead he turns in a great performance.  He struggles in this in-between state of how much to commit to the family.  He's not a killer, he just doesn't have it in him, but his Matty also wants to help out his father, live up to the old man's expectations.  Glad to see Pepper step into the limelight instead of his typical supporting parts.  The other scene stealer is Vin Diesel who in a rare non-action movie delivers one of -- if not THE -- best performances of his shorter career.  Think of Robert Duvall's Tom Hagen, but in the sense he could beat you to death with a crowbar.  Diesel's Taylor is a tough guy, always has been, who realizes to a point that he's never going to climb up the ladder like Matty because of his Jewish/Italian background.

With such a short running time, there isn't a ton of background scenes among Matty and his three friends.  Instead there are three quick early scenes that introduce all three, and then we're right into the story.  I enjoyed watching the dynamic among the quartet because like real friends do, they fight and argue constantly but always come around in the end, especially when needed the most.  Directing combo Brian Koppelman and David Levien do a fine job with the script, crafting a story that allows these characters to breathe some while also reining them in when need be.  There are times late in the movie where it would have been easy to detour and go down a different road, but thankfully it always stays on line.

As for those two cameos, Hopper is only in three or four scenes that need him to be a smartass and glare at someone occasionally.  Malkovich gets to chew the scenery a little more as Uncle Teddy, a mafioso underboss like Hopper who helped raise Matty when his father was thrown in prison.  But like so many good actors in average movies, them just being in this movie aids the cause.  Also listen for a good if underused score by Clint Mansell, and an excellent rock soundtrack to boot. A solid if unspectacular vehicle that does try something new within the mobster movie sub-genre.  A decent enough way to spend 90 minutes.

Knockaround Guys <---trailer (2001): ** 1/2 /****

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