A genre that has seemingly been done to death — the hit man comedy — gets another reprieve courtesy of “The Whole Nine Yards,” a crudely funny farce that covers no new ground but sees its talented players running some surefire plays. Bruce Willis will deliver the customers, but it’s Matthew Perry who will attract the most attention in a pratfall-filled turn that bears comparison to what Tom Hanks was doing 12-15 years ago. This broad crowd-pleaser, which Warner Bros. sneak-previewing nationally over the weekend of Feb. 11, in advance of its opening Feb. 18, has the commercial goods to score a solid, if not eye-popping, B.O. victory.
Shifting gears adroitly from his 1999 output — his smash with “The Sixth Sense,” fizzle with “The Story of Us” and bellyflop with “Breakfast of Champions” — Willis here does a comic riff on the sort of role he played in “The Jackal,” an imperturbable, ultra-professional hitman who invariably out-trumps even the savviest opponent. Willis has arrived at that point as a star where he can seem to do virtually nothing and still anchor a picture by force of personality and the associations he automatically brings to the table.
In “The Whole Nine Yards,” Willis’ tough-guy act serves as an effective foil for Perry’s Nicholas “Oz” Oseransky, a milquetoasty dentist living in an immaculately manicured Montreal suburb who recognizes the man moving into the house next door as the notorious Jimmy “The Tulip” Tudeski, a contract killer famous for having ratted on his former employers, the Hungarian Gogolak Gang of Chicago. Just sprung from the pen after five years and ballsy enough to have refused the witness protection program despite the price on his head, Jimmy takes a liking to the bumbling Oz but warns him, “It’s not important that I’ve killed 17 people. What’s important is how I get along with the people that are still alive.”
As the other characters make their entrances, it becomes apparent that the central joke of Mitchell Kapner’s rascally screenplay is that everyone in the picture — except for Oz — wants somebody dead. For starters, Oz’s sexpot wife, Sophie (Rosanna Arquette, sporting an insane French accent), simply can’t stand her boring husband anymore and is secretly plotting his demise for the insurance money. At the same time, she has the bright idea that Oz should sell Jimmy out to his Hungarian enemies and sends him packing to Chicago to arrange the deal.
When Oz arrives in Chi, he’s greeted in his hotel room by an enormous black man, Frankie Figs (Michael Clarke Duncan), who escorts him to see gang boss Janni Gogolak. In this role, Kevin Pollak, seeking a way to give a stock character new distinction, implements the off-the-wall idea of pronouncing all his Vs like Ws and vice versa, as in “I vill kill the wervin,” and all his Js like Ys, as in, “I yust hate Yimmy.” If nothing else, the bizarre ploy makes you sit up and pay close attention.
At this meeting, where the bashful Oz’s timid request for a finder’s fee is met with guffaws on the part of Janni and his goons, Oz also makes the acquaintance of Cynthia (Natasha Henstridge), a striking blonde who happens to be Jimmy’s wife. In what is decidedly the biggest eyebrow-raiser in a film full of long stretches, Cynthia and Oz find that they have something important in common (both claim not to have had sex in five years) and take a tumble at their earliest opportunity. Result: Oz immediately falls in love, while Cynthia has a plan up her sleeve.
Once the action returns to Montreal, the plotting comes to resemble nothing so much as the “Spy vs. Spy” cartoons in Mad magazine, with everyone sneaking around scheming to whack someone else. In Oz’s absence, Sophie has not only come on to Jimmy but has tried to hire him to knock off her husband. Oz, having flown up with the Chicago gang, is supposed to lead them to Jimmy, but the latter, always one step ahead of the competition, is expecting them and has his own agenda, which involves the assistance of Oz’s bouncy dental assistant, Jill (Amanda Peet). The latter’s secret dream has always been to become — what else? — a contract killer, and she intends to learn on the job with Jimmy, her longtime idol.
In the aftermath of Janni’s disastrous nocturnal siege on Jimmy’s home, the coldblooded killer finally loses his cool when Oz informs him that he loves Cynthia (and, oh yes, that he has already shtupped her). But Oz is able to make it worth Jimmy’s while to keep him alive by concocting an outrageous scheme in which falsified dental records will make it look as though Jimmy has actually been killed, thereby opening up all sorts of new life possibilities for him. There are a number of further twists and turns after this, including some mutually beneficial conniving on the part of Cynthia and the ever-resourceful Jill, leading to just desserts for all concerned in the age-old tradition of manic farce.
Of course, there’s something tinny about the entire enterprise given its basis in heavily shopworn, and entirely movie-derived, notions about hired killers, the mob and so on. And then there’s the cheerful amorality of the characters when it comes to killing, an attitude that has virtually become a norm in the crime comedy subgenre. But whatever one’s reluctance to revisit this terribly familiar territory one more time, the story’s numerous crazy bounces finally wear down resistance; there are quite a few laughs to be had from the deliberately ludicrous and extreme plot reversals, as well as from the spot-on playing of the cast.
Willis is Willis, increasingly minimalist in style as the years go by, but no less effective for that. “Friends” co-star Perry, who has made no waves in his handful of features to date, here signals that he could well have what it takes to be a fine farceur, with less-contorted romantic comedy and perhaps more dramatic challenges waiting down the road. Oz’s wimpishness is a bit irritating at first, but Perry’s physical bumbling becomes funnier as it begins serving as counterpoint to his character’s gradual increase in confidence; it’s an adroit performance.
In key supporting roles, the towering Duncan reveals a gregarious, quick-thinking side quite at odds with his turn as the sweet but violent simpleton in “The Green Mile,” while Peet is utterly winning as an irrepressible young lady who knows how to seize opportunity and run with it. Henstridge can’t quite manage the impossible task of persuading that the cool, calculating wife of someone like Jimmy would actually fall for a dufus like Oz, and Arquette is off the compass as a ditz who has all the time in the world to scheme and still screws it up.
Director Jonathan Lynn keeps a loose rein on the nuttiness but never lets it get out of bounds, maintaining the film’s comic buoyancy throughout. Also helpful to keeping things aloft is Randy Edelman’s jazzy score. Production values are standard, although pic, which was originally written to take place in Miami, is notable for using a Canadian city for what it is and not trying to pretend that it’s somewhere south of the border.