Pulp diction, Denver style

FILM

Imitation is the sincerest form of larceny, and there can't be much doubt whose joint the makers of Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead (18) have been casing. Count off the components: the criminal rounding up an ill-assorted team of thugs for a job which goes gorily awry; the intense talkiness, in what passes for baroque underworld argot; the beatings, stabbings, tortures, humiliations and other forms of exquisite nastiness; Steve Buscemi as a hit man, Christo-pher Walken as a charismatic older guy. Short of calling the movie Reservoir Fiction, there's not a lot more they could have done to parade their allegiances, but if the modus operandi is all too familiar, they've still managed to put their own stamp on the operation. It's a slick piece of work.

Studied brutality aside, the most striking thing about this first feature directed by Gary Fleder is its diction. Scott Rosenberg's clever screenplay teems with so much (presumably) invented criminal jargon that subtitles would often be handy: his lexicon includes such terms and phrases as "Buckwheats" (an order to assassinate in the most painful way), "Give it a name" ("I quite agree, old chap"), "Mamma-Rammer" ("unpleasant cove") and many others unfit for publication in these pages. It's as if Rosenberg had noticed everyone was calling Tarentino's brand of violence "Jacobean", and recalled that the other thing Jacobean tragedy had going for it was lush, highly contrived language. Whatever his motive, the neologisms help make Denver much more droll than it might sound in synopsis.

By comparison with all the verbal high jinks, its plot is relatively straightforward. A reformed gangster with a soft streak, known as Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia), who runs a service which allows the dying to videotape their words of wisdom for their loved ones, is called in by his old boss The Man With The Plan (Christopher Walken) - a spooky, wild- haired paraplegic monster straight out of Charles Addams - for one last job: "It's just an action - not a piece of work" (translation: "no deaths involved"). Jimmy is simply to put the frighteners on a young orthodontist who is wooing the ex-girlfriend of The Man's dim-bulb son.

With understandable misgivings, Jimmy agrees, and rounds up some old mates: Franchise (William Forsythe), Pieces (Christopher Lloyd), Easy Wind (Bill Nunn) and Critical Bill (Treat Williams, bullet-headed and hugely funny), so-called not because he's read F R Leavis but because people he meets tend to end up on the critical list. He works in a funeral parlour, and when we first meet him, he's thumping away at a punch-bag which proves to be a corpse. Even saintly Jimmy ought to rumble that Critical Bill may not be that reliable, but he goes ahead, and their little action turns into a very messy piece of work. The Man, peeved, issues Buckwheats, setting the deadly Mr Shhh (Buscemi) on their tails; Jimmy, meanwhile, has fallen in love with a ski instructor (Gabrielle Anwar).

Life turns ugly for all concerned, so ugly that you might guess that Rosenberg started out by goosing himself with the nastiest things he could imagine and then contrived a plot to string them together. If you pause for a second to examine the state of your ethics, you may find yourself exasperated or dismayed; the trick of the film is to keep you sniggering so steadily that it's hard to make that effort, and the momentum only falters when it makes the mistake of shifting into romantic-pathetic mode, and tries to shape Jimmy into a real character. (The more plausible Garcia makes him - and he's as humane a presence as usual - the more cartoon- like the other characters seem). Denver is undeniably a dazzling calling- card for its writer and director, and it's a great ride, but when you hear goons repeatedly saying "Give it a name", one which comes to mind is "hollow".

The title of Copycat (18), directed by Jon Amiel, offers so large and juicy a hostage to fortune that it almost seems churlish to seize on it. Almost. However, when presented with a movie about a serial killer whose gimmick is to follow the MO of famous real-life SKs from the Boston Strangler to Ted Bundy, and which is itself largely a retread of The Silence of the Lambs (petite female cop with Dixie accent teams up with shut-in shrink to track down multiple murderer), pity does not come readily. Such originality as there is stems from the heroes being female: Holly Hunter as the policewoman, Sigourney Weaver as a psychologist specialising in serial killers, who is rendered agoraphobic after an egregiously sleazy example (Harry Connick Jr) nearly gets her. The action is par for the course: not boring enough to make you fidget, not gripping enough to prevent you wondering why the glass of brandy Sigourney Weaver keeps slugging from is always full. Incidentally, the press kit asks reviewers not to give away the surprise ending; a baffling request, since it doesn't appear to have one.

Merciful brevity is the only decent response to Mary Reilly (15), a hideous and baffling crime against the talents of almost all involved, including the director Stephen Frears and the screenwriter Christopher Hampton. This version of Jekyll and Hyde as seen by the housemaid (a rum idea in itself, when you think how much scholars have gone on about the importance of Stevenson's tale being virtually woman-free) loses the battle the second Mary (Julia Roberts) first opens her mouth and speaks in that pure Irish brogue you only hear in Nashville, Tennessee. Worse follows. Ms Roberts's performance consists largely of tilting her head forward, bugging out her eyes and rolling them from side to side as if imitating a startled faun; John Malkovich's American-speaking Jekyll and Hyde look so similar that only an advanced opium addict would be fooled; and that genius George Cole, as the Head Butler, is not allowed to be funny. It is all very dull, and very sad.

Iain Softley's Hackers (12), a comedy-adventure aimed at children who wear baggy trousers and reversed headgear, concerns implausibly clean- living teenage computer buffs in New York who stumble across a dastardly conspiracy. It sets itself the tricky task of making tapping a keyboard look like a cross between flying a starship, staging a Ninja attack and taking strong drugs, and does so with swirling equations, time-lapse photography and digitally-generated visions of cyberspace, all driven along by the big beat today's pop kids really dig, daddy-o. Harmless enough fun, although at least one of the heroes, Cereal Killer (Matthew Lillard), is so irritating that one grows to crave his violent demise.

Another young person's film, Barb Wire, has been given a 15 certificate, which must be a terrible blow for a project whose ideal target audience is 12 years old, male and under-achieving. If you fall into this demographic, here is all you need to know. In the opening credits, Pamela Anderson Lee, almost wearing a skin-tight dress, does a back-lit, bump-and-grind dance to the Gun version of "Word Up" while being sprayed by jets of water; if you look carefully, you may catch a flash of nipple. You never see her fully naked, and there are no proper sex scenes. It is set in the future, so people wear black leather and divide their time between noisy nightclubs and scrap-metal yards. There is a lot of shooting and a thing with a crane, and Pamela rides a motorbike. Have a nice puberty, and come back when you have seen an old film your grandparents like called Casablanca, which is shamelessly ripped off in the final scene.

Parents and grandparents, your treat of the week is another Hitchcock re-release: Rebecca (PG). Watching it again reminds you why this Cinderella- meets-Bluebeard high-class tosh is such juicy meat for excitable academics (the BFI is publishing something called The Rebecca Project on CD-Rom to accompany the release). But it also surprises you with just how how much sly comedy Hitchcock slips in. It's not as exhilarating or satisfying as some of the thrillers, and Olivier looks a bit awkward at times (the film belongs to the sublime Joan Fontaine) but, to borrow a title, it's rich and strange.

Cinema details: see Going Out, page 14

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