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"KNOCKAROUND GUYS"
(2002) (Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A Brooklyn mobster's son and his three friends try to retrieve a bag that contains a great deal of money from the locals in a small Montana town who've taken it.
PLOT:
Matty Demaret (BARRY PEPPER) is a young man haunted by both his past and family name. When he was younger, his uncle, Teddy Deserve (JOHN MALKOVICH), couldn't persuade him to shoot the man who framed his mobster father, Benny Chains (DENNIS HOPPER), and thus he was never considered for any sort of position in the Brooklyn-based crime family.

Being the son of Benny, however, has caused no one to hire him for fear of being tangled up with the mob. Reduced to being his father's errand boy, Matty wants something more and eventually convinces Benny to allow him to transport half a million dollars across the country.

Unfortunately, Matty enlists the aid of Johnny Marbles (SETH GREEN), his nervous and former coke-head friend, to pick up the bag in Spokane and fly it back to New York. When he spots Sheriff Decker (TOM NOONAN) and Deputy Gray (SHAWN DOYLE) during a refueling stop in Wibaux, Montana, however, he panics and stashes the bag with others tagged for another flight.

While distracted by the local law officers who eye him suspiciously, Marbles doesn't realize that some local airport personnel have found the bag and taken it for themselves. When Marbles reports this to Matty, he, Marble's cousin, Chris Scarpa (ANDREW DAVOLI), and their tough guy friend, Taylor (VIN DIESEL), set off for the small town.

Once there, they attempt to recover the money, but one complication after another soon turns what should have been an easy job into an increasingly dicey and dangerous situation. With Teddy and his goons on the way, Matty and the others race to resolve the situation before time runs out.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
Becoming a new movie star has its advantages and disadvantages. Among the former is fame, fortune and everything that goes along with both. The latter, however, counters that with paparazzi, tabloid gossip and lack of privacy. For certain "lucky" individuals, it also means that previously unreleased films that were once deemed for straight to video debuts or release purgatory (where they sit on the shelf and never appear in any form) finally get their day in the sun (or darkened movie theater as accuracy would have it).

Since the delay of most such films is due to them being of less than stellar forms of quality entertainment, such releases become the bane of budding stars as they can put a dent or blemish in one's box office and/or artistic portfolio.

Such is the case with Vin Diesel and "Knockaround Guys." Reportedly sitting on the shelf collecting dust for more than two years, the film was destined for obscurity until Diesel had back to back hits with "The Fast and the Furious" and "XXX." Following the strike-while-the-iron-is-hot mentality, New Line Cinema has blown off the dust and cobwebs on this mediocre drama about second generation mobsters who must do damage control after bumbling a job.

In this day and age of HBO's "The Sopranos," any mob-related film had better be up to snuff in terms of work behind and in front of the camera. Unfortunately, but not altogether that surprising, this film doesn't even come close to that series or other such pictures.

As written and directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who previously co-wrote "Rounders" before making this, their directorial debut), the film hopes to mix the mob drama with something of a Wild West story. The two genres are obviously compatible as they deal with groups of people who operate by a set series of rules and resolve issues they have with others with guns.

It's just too bad that the filmmakers couldn't manage to capture any good elements from either genre, or come up with a compelling plot or engaging characters. Instead, we get a story we've seen countless times before, characters we don't like let alone care for, and amateurish and sloppy storytelling.

Good filmmakers subtly drop plot and character information and exposition into their pictures so that such material seamlessly blends in with the rest of the story. Here, such information is so obvious, trite and/or convenient that it might as well be accompanied by flashing subtitles telling us what we're learning. I hate when characters tell each other things that they'd never say or already know, and do so just so that that the viewer can get in on the proceedings. That happens far too often here.

Other dialogue and the film's personal/emotional downtime moments are also rather stilted and far too obvious, and don't get the viewer to like or sympathize with the characters as intended. Diesel comes off as the most interesting - even if we know next to nothing about him - due to that gravely voice and onscreen charisma. We know more about the character played by Barry Pepper ("The Green Mile," "Saving Private Ryan"), but don't really care due to the flatly written and portrayed role.

Seth Green ("Rat Race," the "Austin Powers" films) appears in the form of some comedic relief but sticks out like a sore thumb, while Andrew Davoli ("The Yards," "Bringing Out the Dead") is so innocuous that you'd barely know his character was present.

I didn't care that their characters can't shake their family names, get real jobs, or that they bumble a mob job. Since we have no feelings for them, their predicament means little to us. Part of that's due to the setup and resultant stakes of the potential consequences (everyone sleeps with the fishes if the money doesn't make it to its original destination).

Among the potential "victims" is Dennis Hopper ("EdTV," "Speed") as the protagonist's father who's the least interesting mob boss figure to come down the Jersey Pike in a long time. John Malkovich ("Shadow of the Vampire," "Being John Malkovich") shows up and gives the film a touch of slight class and pedigree, but the most interesting thing about him is the unidentifiable accent with which he speaks.

The rest of the reason for the film not engaging the viewer is that the ensuing complications regarding the money's whereabouts aren't as fun, imaginative or thrilling for the viewer as they should be. Instead, the filmmakers opt for introducing a sheriff character - played to extreme bizarreness by Tom Noonan ("The Pledge," "The Astronaut's Wife") - who seems straight out of some David Lynch TV show or movie, but without the requisite spookiness or intrigue. Instead, his strangeness feels contrived at best and ultimately amounts to nothing.

Simply put, the film offers few surprises but far too many clichés, stiff performances, bad writing and mediocre filmmaking. There are so many terrific mob-related movies and TV shows out there that you shouldn't waste your time on this sort of subpar effort. I'm sure Diesel probably hopes you'll feel that way as well. "Knockaround Guys" rates as just a 3 out of 10.




Reviewed October 7, 2002 / Posted October 11, 2002


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