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Even a hit man needs love

In `You Kill Me,' Ben Kingsley is an assassin with an addiction who falls head over heels.

June 22, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

There's your repentant hit men and then there's your unrepentant hit men. Frank Falenczyk, played with a merciless glower by Ben Kingsley in the wry black comedy "You Kill Me," clearly falls into the latter category.

An assassin in Buffalo, N.Y., for the local Polish mob run by his Uncle Roman (Philip Baker Hall), Frank has allowed his drinking to interfere with his work, so Roman exiles him to San Francisco to dry out and get his act together. There's not a lot of enthusiasm for this reformation from Frank, but he comes to realize that it's a matter of choosing between his family and his drinking, and his role in the family depends on him being an effective killer. Besides, he likes being a killer because, well, he's just so good at it.

Directed by John Dahl, the film is of a piece with his earlier, wonderful neo-noirs, "The Last Seduction" and "Red Rock West," if less successful in its overall execution. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely ("The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," "The Chronicles of Narnia") excels when wielding its deadpan humor and oddball moments, not so much when building interest in the ethnic gang showdown brewing in western New York's City of Good Neighbors.

Though it bears a passing resemblance to the recent Kevin Costner film "Mr. Brooks" in its depiction of a killer dealing with addiction and its mix of mordant humor and thriller elements, "You Kill Me's" approach has a very different tone. Deep down, it's about relationships and the most surprising and pleasing aspect is when it veers off into quirkily romantic seriocomic territory.

In San Francisco, while working part-time in a mortuary and grudgingly attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, Frank meets Laurel (Tea Leoni), a TV ad sales whiz with attitude to burn and a forthrightness that bores deep into the hit man's soul. As things gradually heat up with Laurel, and Frank tiptoes carefully through the AA 12 steps, he lightens up considerably, with Kingsley allowing the scowl to slowly crack like a chunk of ice exposed to the sun's rays.

Leoni and Kingsley make for an amiably caustic couple, taking full advantage of Markus and McFeely's sharp, off-beat dialogue. Leoni delivers Laurel's been-there, done-that lines with a weariness born of suffering many fools and much disappointment. Her effect on Frank is to watch a flower -- albeit a short, bullet-headed and murderous flower -- bloom.

It's a movie in which seemingly each actor has chosen a divergent stylistic tack, at times striking radically different notes, but for the most part it works. Luke Wilson has quiet beatitude as Frank's easygoing, play-it-as-it-lays sponsor, Tom, registering the mildest surprise upon hearing about Frank's true occupation. Wilson's yin is balanced by the considerable yang of Bill Pullman's off-kilter, opportunistic real estate agent, Dave, who sets Frank up in an apartment and gets him the job in the mortuary.

The film periodically cuts back to Buffalo (played here by Winnipeg, Canada), where an Irish gang led by Dennis Farina -- the target of the botched hit that landed Frank in San Francisco -- and backed by Chinese investment, is slowly squeezing out the Poles. Despite the formidable opposing forces of Hall and Farina, these segments aren't as engaging as the main story line. As necessary as they may be to the plot in setting up Frank's inevitable return, they lack the refreshing eccentricity of the rest of the film.

We've seen the inner lives of hit men and mobsters rendered innumerably in recent years on film and television, but "You Kill Me" does it in a satisfyingly comedic way, loaded with easily identifiable idiosyncrasies. Frank may rationalize his murderous ways, but it's not too hard to empathize with his need for someone to love.

"You Kill Me." MPAA rating: R for language and some violence. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. In general release.

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