Where hit men find their softer inner killers

Posted: June 22, 2007

John Dahl's new thrillo-comedy You Kill Me Again, which boasts an amazing cast of indie film's greatest stars, is hands down one of the most life-affirming, inspiring films about professional killers in contemporary cinema.

A terrific thriller and love story, Kill is surreal slapstick as off-kilter as Dahl's previous gems, The Last Seduction, Red Rock West and Rounders. But it does add a new ingredient to Dahl's recipe for thrillarity: The film's depiction of vicious mobsters is suffused with the precepts and principles of 12-step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the screenwriting team behind the Chronicles of Narnia films, the movie is a funny, wicked, smart, fly-ball satire that holds its own next to classic psycho-killer heart-warmers The Whole Nine Yards; the The Mexican; and, of course, the mobster-in-therapy classic, The Sopranos.

Kill follows the trials and tribulations of Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley), a lovely, yet troubled, hitman whose career has suffered because of his incipient alcoholism - itself fueled by his self-defeating, life-long effort to hide from his own feelings of loss and inferiority.

A member of Buffalo, N.Y.'s, Polish mob led by his uncle Roman Krzeminski (Philip Baker Hall), Frank messes up one too many hits and jeopardizes the family. They are being squeezed by Edward O'Leary (Dennis Farina) and his Irish gang, a group on the cusp of making an alliance with the Chinese. (Never knew Buffalo was such an active, hip, multi-ethnic mob town.)

In a basic Soprano move, Roman orders his nephew to leave for San Francisco, dry out and join A.A. (Familial love courses throughout the murderous corridors of Kill like a pure well of spring water miraculously welling up in a toxic waste disposal site.)

The film achieves new heights of hilarious absurdity out West, where Frank, who gets a job pretty-fying corpses at a funeral home, meets his two saviors. Tom (Luke Wilson) is a highway toll-booth fare collector and A.A. veteran who takes Frank under his wing and teaches him that even failed gunmen can be loved and forgiven by a higher power.

And the neurotic, single woman-with-intimacy-issues, Laurel, superbly brought to life by Téa Leoni, plays Beatrice to Frank's Dante, and leads the tortured killer into the light. Leoni, who turns in one of her best performances, is wonderful as a neo-Kate Hepburn fast-talking tomboy, who's all girl inside. She and Kingsley mesh so well, their chemistry alone makes the movie worth seeing.

Kill hits its satirical stride with its sly critique of recovery groups: When Frank confides in an A.A. meeting that he's a killer - and that he loves his job and longs to be better at it - his fellow alcoholics embrace him. Laurel is no less immersed in therapy-think: She is overjoyed when Frank kills his first man sober. You could be a murderer, 12-steppers say here, but as long as you're in touch with your feelings, you're good - you're saved.

Playing one of his most memorable roles since Sexy Beast, Sir Ben is the perfect straight man. He inhabits Frank's skin with Zen-like stillness and delivers a suave yet understated performance.

But for all its hilarity, Kill Me lacks the substance and depth of a great satire. It is definitely not a classic: It probably won't stand up to a careful second viewing.

But it is a terrific, if minor, cinematic feast: It's the perfect breakfast short-stack - complete with fresh fruit and cream.

Dig in.

You Kill Me *** (out of four stars)

Produced by Carol Baum, directed by John Dahl, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, photography by Jeff Jur, distributed by IFC Films.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.

Frank Falenczyk. . . Ben Kingsley

Laurel Pearson. . . Téa Leoni

Tom. . . Luke Wilson

Roman Krzeminski. . . Philip Baker Hall

Playing at: Ritz 5

Contact Staff Writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.

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