The film is a double debut for the director Gary Fleder and the writer Scott Rosenberg, although they have worked together in TV. The directing is slick, though there are moments of stylised homage or crude irony that wouldn't be missed if they hit the cutting-room floor. At one point Fleder makes the malt shop where the gang members meet look so much like an Edward Hopper painting that you look in the corner of the frame for a signature; and there must be a subtler choice of music to accompany the hero's darkest hour, beaten up and under sentence of death, than "Accentuate the Positive".
The writer may be more of a find. Rosenberg uses not one but two choruses to comment on the acting. One is nostalgic Joe Heff (Jack Warden), who hangs around the malt shop talking about the good old gangster days to anyone who will listen. He explains crucial bits of slang: "buckwheats" means punishment executions, murders that express contempt rather than simple disapproval. "Buckwheats" aren't quick or dignified. "Boat drinks", on the other hand, is a ritual greeting or farewell, summing up in a single phrase the dream of cocktails in the Caribbean. "Boat drinks" goes with a hand gesture between friends, palm against palm to symbolise past prison visits when there was Perspex between the hands, and no real contact possible.
The other chorus comes from Jimmy's legitimate business. He runs a company that videotapes the last messages of the terminally ill, so that their surviving families can consult them and be comforted. This service is called Afterlife Advice. The first piece of advice we hear, an old man giving hints about women to his grandson, "Treat 'em like dirt and they'll come running", hardly suggests that the approach of death brings wisdom. Later pieces of testimony, cut into the action without narrative explanation, are more wholesome. They have the effect of broadening the film's concerns, taking it a little distance away from its genre.
Rosenberg's individual formulation of gangster idiom, which is airy and lyrical, combined with some inventive casting, surrounds Jimmy the Saint with colourful acolytes and minor devils. There's Pieces (Christopher Lloyd), so called because a mysterious health problem is making him lose his fingers and toes. In his big speech, Pieces expresses his lack of regret with the phrase "We did the things" - they did the things that others only dream of. Then there's Critical Bill (Treat Williams), now working as an undertaker, and first seen maintaining his boxing skills with a suspended corpse rather than a punchbag. His catchphrase is "He don't much mind".
Behind the plot is The Man with the Plan (Christopher Walken), a bitter paraplegic who hires a blonde with minimal nursing skills to minister to him, on the grounds that "although I can't feel them, I know I have erections in her presence". The Man wants Jimmy to do "an action, not a piece of work". Is that clear? An action, not a piece of work. Intimidation, violence if you have to, no death. The Man with the Plan presides over the film, dapper, raging, one leg elegantly crossed over the other even if he needs someone else to put it there.
Rosenberg's gangster dialogue is unusually free of the influence of David Mamet, whose rhythms and repetitions have dominated unrespectable talk in the movies these past 15 years. An elderly undertaker in Things to Do in Denver has a lovely little speech explaining the procedure for accommodating surplus bodies in bumper coffins, where he slips from the salesmanlike term "Intended decedent" for the occupant of the upper compartment, to the brutal "you're whacked". You're victims, down below.
With the casting of Steve Buscemi as Mr Shhh, described as the most lethal contract killer west of the Mississippi, the director goes too far, perhaps only because this taciturn killing machine has so little of Rosenberg's redeeming dialogue. Buscemi has a distinctive, slight, neurotic presence. He's more like a twiglet than the angel of death, and a scene of mass killing in a bar, where he outshoots large numbers of gunmen, becomes simply silly.
Even with the benefit of dialogue, Andy Garcia can't manage to provide the film with a centre. Jimmy the Saint is a gangster but a good guy. He's a front man, and consequently bears no direct blood guilt. But he's also a whole list of movie cliches: ex-criminal, going straight, dragged back into the underworld for one last job, gangster rounding up the old gang to relive past glories. We're invited to see him as tragic and noble (the point being proved because he winces when he's told he's noble), but he shows consistently bad judgement and is arguably just incompetent.
Like David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death, making a fresh commitment to life even as he plunges to extinction, Jimmy falls in love and suddenly loses his readiness to die. His muse is Dagney, played by Gabrielle Anwar, who performed the same service for Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman. The romantic scenes between Jimmy and Dagney are pretty standard. When she says he must be a gangster, and asks him to say, "You dirty rat!", she greets his Cagney impersonation with a wry "No sale". This cute by-play only makes Jimmy's character less convincing.
There's another woman of course, Fairuza Balk (Lucinda), the obligatory prostitute in need of someone to stand up for her. In the film's last half hour, Jimmy has big and rather embarrassing scenes of violent generosity or generous violence, one for each woman. He presses a family wedding ring on Dagney's boyfriend, giving his anguished blessing to a union that at least has a future, and he brutalises a man who has beaten Lucinda in front of a whole conference room of colleagues. These self-righteous bits of acting don't come across as morally clean, the way presumably they're meant to.
But then Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead is a boys' movie, and Jimmy expresses more emotion towards his fellow gangsters than towards either woman. It seems to be an iron rule of contemporary cinema that every heartfelt hug between men must be balanced by a speech of dry contempt or hysterical disgust on the subject of those who go beyond the manly hug. There are hugs aplenty in the film, so of course the homophobia dial has to be turned all the way up every now and then.
n On general release from tomorrow