By Stephanie Zacharek
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Moviegoers who've grown immune to Christopher Walken's dark charms won't be breaking the doors down to buy a ticket for Suicide Kings. Its centerpiece is an all-out, full-throttle dose of the Walken weirdness as he portrays a semi-retired New York mafioso who's kidnapped by a quartet of privileged but street-stupid ex-preppy boys.
However, hardcore Walken fans (count me in) probably will love this latest visit with the fellow who chillingly played Russian roulette in The Deer Hunter, oversaw mob operations from his wheelchair in Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead and, wearing Air Force blue, deadpanned that outlandish story about the soldier and the wristwatch in Pulp Fiction.
This time around, he's got even quirkier material going for him. Unknown screenwriters Josh McKinney, Gina Goldman and Wayne Rice have provided a tailor-made script (adapted from Don Stanford's short story The Hostage) spiked with equal parts of black comedy, suspense and outright treachery. And rookie director Peter O'Fallon, having graduated from mucho episodes of thirtysomething, Northern Exposure and Party of Five, maintains a surreal balance between dead seriousness and breakout farce. Just for kicks, Suicide Kings also tosses out a jaded aphorism: Learn from your elders.
When we first see Walken's Charlie Barrett (aka Carlo Bartolucci), he's prowling his favorite sleek Manhattan boite, bewitching the help, oozing excess power and provoking rib-nudges among martini drinkers who know a real-life godfather when they see one. But "Charlie," we learn, has reinvented himself: He's now a taxpaying citizen who's gone legit, and all his rough edges and raw instincts have been sanded and polished. As long as you don't pay too much attention to his diction--which is straight off the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway--you'd think he was a sophisticated international businessman with a taste for $3,000 suits.
Lesson one: You can take the man out of the mob but not the mob out of the man.
The foolish rich boys who decide to nab Carlo/Charlie do it because one of their sisters has been kidnapped. Only a guy this well-connected, these Ivy League thinkers reason, can get Lisa (Laura Harris) back, using shuttle diplomacy. Of course, they underestimate their victim's values and wiles, and they have none of their own with which to compete. Charlie may be the guy duct-taped to a chair in a remote suburban mansion, but eventually he's the guy in charge--manipulator, surrogate father, reluctant hero.
In a culture in which every other TV show and every third movie elevates the cops and the D.A. into Sir Lancelot, it's downright refreshing to see the bad guys get a break. Here, the four snotnoses who abduct Charlie are neurotic whiners and ethical zeroes, while the vivid, savvy Mr. Barrett is a champion of family values, a repository of honor and a wellspring of wisecracks--a tongue-in-cheek inversion of the corrupt monsters Walken usually plays. "The difference between winning and losing," he observes, even after the boys slice off one of his fingers, "is sizing up your opponents." In other words, Charlie knows small when he sees it, and his tormentors are minuscule in thought and deed.
They include the would-be doctor T.K. (Jeremy Sisto); the arrogant Max (Sean Patrick Flannery), who's the secret boyfriend of the missing girl; the girl's worried brother Avery (Henry Thomas); and the control freak Brett (Jay Mohr). Let's not forget the host of the proceedings, nerdish Ira (Johnny Galecki), who comes home to find an ex-capo bleeding in the living room and four of his pals trying to figure out what to do with him. Ira's greatest concern, meanwhile, is that the boys take off their shoes in the living room, lest they smudge Father's carpet.
The raffish Walken has a field day here playing street wisdom against book-learning, slyly conning his marks and, when the moment demands it, relieving himself in a vase from Sri Lanka. "Whatever you do," he tells his lawyer on the telephone, "don't send your kid to boarding school." To his credit, director O'Fallon generally quells what must have been a powerful temptation to Tarantino-ize every frame and line of dialogue, and he gives his five younger actors every chance to show how callow, selfish and shallow boys can be. He also has the wisdom to let Walken run free with his now-hilarious, now-threatening portrait of an honorable man sorely tested by fools.
There's so much good talk in Suicide Kings that it has the feel (but not the subdued look) of a transplanted stage play, and the writers come up with some satisfying twists of plot and sudden revelations of character--just to keep the rust off our wheels. There's also a terrifically funny performance from the eternally angry comic Denis Leary, as Charlie's weary hitman, Lono Vecchio. Lono is professional but obsessed with his $1,500 cowboy boots, which are made from stingray. Now Tarantino would like that, but O'Fallon doesn't belabor the issue.
In the end, what we have here is wall-to-wall Walken. Here's the most bizarre of moviedom's major actors riffing and running changes on a role that suits him to perfection--the "bad" man who is very nearly embarrassed by his moral superiority to the witless punks who dare tangle with his mind, but a man who has never forgotten the rules of engagement.
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