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You Kill Me (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 22 June 2007
Stop me if you’ve heard this one. There was this Polish hit man, see, and he lived in Buffalo, New York….

It sounds like a setup for a shaggy dog story—and in a sense, “You Kill Me” (terrible title) IS a shaggy dog story. It walks a very narrow path between comedy and drama, yet rarely loses its footing. This is partly because of the cast. Frank, the Polish hit man, is played (somewhat uncharacteristically) by Sir Ben Kingsley, who’s long been a master at this very game: he plays Frank in a “is he funny or what?” mode throughout, which certainly holds your attention. Laurel, the woman in San Francisco he slowly falls for, is very well played by Téa Leoni, with her intelligent, pinched-but-pretty face and willingness to nail this role with wry humor with traces of tragedy.

The supporting players are also well above average: Luke Wilson, Dennis Farina, Philip Baker Hall, Bill Pullman. The director is John Dahl, who established himself with two skillful neo-noirs, “Red Rock West” (1992) and “The Last Seduction” (1994). His movies after that have been a mixed bag; “Unforgettable” (1996) unfortunately was all too forgettable; “The Great Raid” (2005) was a competent but undistinguished war story. He fared better with “Rounders” (1998), about gamblers, and the tense “Joy Ride” (2001). “You Kill Me” brings him back to his roots—“Red Rock West” also dealt with hired killers.

Frank lives alone in a chilly-looking house in Buffalo, and he’s gradually become an alcoholic. He cleans the snow off his front steps by tossing a vodka bottle into uncleared snow, then shoveling his way to it. His cousin Stef (Marcus Thomas) arrives with an assignment from Frank’s uncle Roman (Philip Baker Hall), the Godfather of the local Polish mob. He wants Frank to take out Edward O’Leary (Dennis Farina), the arrogant head of the insurgent Irish mob. However, Frank drunkenly sleeps through the assignment.

Roman is angry and unforgiving; Frank’s been a problem lately. He sends him to San Francisco with orders to go through a recovery program. He’s assigned Dave (Bill Pullman), a bitter, envious local, to keep tabs on Frank. Once in San Francisco, Frank tries an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and is at first somewhat repelled (and amused) by the ritualistic nature of the meeting, with everyone chorusing “hello” to new members. But he also meets Tom (Luke Wilson), a gay toll-taker on the Golden Gate Bridge, who, when he learns Frank is straight, still agrees to be Frank’s sponsor. The two men become friends, and Frank gets a job at a funeral parlor, helping to prepare the bodies for viewing and funeral. The story occasionally cuts back to Buffalo, showing Roman’s decreasing power and O’Leary’s growing dominance.

Gradually, Tom helps Frank realize that AA can be useful to him, and Frank develops a resolve to stop drinking. It’s been interfering with his work; he wants to get sober in order to kill people better. At the funeral home, he meets Laurel Pearson (Leoni), helping to arrange the funeral of her stepfather; she didn’t much like him, and her candor interests Frank.
As their romance develops, Frank gradually reveals things about himself—first, that he’s in AA. Meanwhile, things are getting worse in Buffalo.

Screenwriting partners Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely can’t be said to be getting into a rut. Their first film was the TV movie “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers,” their second “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” They also wrote the currently-filming second “Narnia” movie. How they also came up with the dry, original and witty “You Kill Me” would probably make an interesting story. The dialogue is sharp, sometimes almost painful (Leoni is especially good at this kind of thing); it’s a different view of this kind of thing, not as overly comic as, say, “Grosse Pointe Blank,” not as serious—or epic—as the “Godfather” movies. No tricks are played to get us to like Frank and Laura, and to hope their relationship goes well; it’s the actors and the characterizations that draw us in and keep us there.

Even when ripe melodrama intrudes near the end—thinking of suicide, Frank staggers out onto the Golden Gate Bridge as voices from the past echo in his head—and the story trips up about the time Frank has to return to Buffalo, the movie quickly regains itself. Even though Frank does kill people for a living, even though he’s initially icy with his emotions sealed off (he never looks at people when he talks to them), in the first scenes we can already see traces of the more sensitive guy inside. And he eventually comes to the fore. He regrets blundering on several of his previous hits—oh, he killed the target, all right, but not in the brisk, efficient manner he prefers. To make some kind of amends, he sends lots of gift certificates to the heirs of his targets.

Sir Ben Kingsley doesn’t get to play comedy very often, but he’s very good at it (just take a look at “Without a Clue”), even though his terse, tough acting style remains in place. Téa Leoni, though she’ s younger, makes a great match with him. She delivers her sardonic, bitter lines with a snap and flourish that makes you long for the return of screwball comedy and her to be cast in them.

Despite that lapse on the Golden Gate Bridge, John Dahl elegantly balances the mix of comedy and drama throughout. He never gives in to temptation to emphasize the humor or to make the violence stronger. Except as noted, the movie maintains a smooth flow, even when (as we know would happen) Frank finally has to face O’Leary himself. These scenes are helped by Dennis Farina’s patented smart/mean delivery. His bad guys always LOVE what they do, and are always convinced they’re by far the sharpest knife in the drawer.

Luke Wilson is a quiet, reassuring presence; he has one very good scene, in which Frank reveals he’s a hit man while Tom is on duty in the toll booth (alarming passersby who overhear Frank describe his work). Bill Pullman’s resentful realtor is also well realized; he dislikes Frank, but knows he can be useful.

The movie was mostly shot in Winnipeg, which easily passes for Buffalo. It’s surprising to learn that the production spent only one day in San Francisco; somehow, they found the parts of Winnipeg that look like the city on the bay. Jeffrey Jur’s low-key widescreen cinematography is handsome and realistic, making good use of locations, and the production design by John Dondertman is spare and convincing.

Despite its awful title—it sounds alarmingly like a comedy starring Steven Seagal, a frightening idea—“You Kill Me” is sharp, witty and suspenseful. It gets a bit ragged toward the end, but does recover very nicely. This isn’t likely to draw many people into theaters, but it’s going to do very well on cable movie channels and, eventually, on video as well. It’s modest but memorable.

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