The funniest crime caper to come down the pike since “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels,” this inventive, occasionally gritty spoof wears its post-Tarantino influences proudly, managing to affectionately lampoon everything from vintage Scorsese to “The Usual Suspects” along its genially bloody way. Given the spin appropriate to its too-hip-to-live cast, “Very Mean Men” could prove very kind to the right distributor.
Sometimes a tip can save lives, and other times — well, a bartender sees things differently. At least the clean-cut barkeep played by Matthew Modine does, especially when he pegs a would-be tough guy (Martin Landau) as a cheap drinker. To keep the small change coming, the barman spins a tale of warring mob clans who peacefully divide up the spoils of San Fernando Valley until family honor and cheapskate behavior send them over the edge.
The Minettis are led by mellow Gino (Ben Gazzara), whose ruthlessness has softened somewhat with age. He’s inclined to set things right when Big Paddy Mulroney (Charles Durning) complains that Gino’s boys are muscling in on his side of the Valley. Trouble is, Gino’s son, Paulie — played in a career-reviving turn by Scott Baio, with hair dyed blond and sporting a white goatee — is a hothead who hands the Irish clan some moolah but then stiffs Paddy’s waitress daughter (Leigh-Allen Baker) when his crew has a lousy lunch at Mulroney’s diner.
Ethnic insults start flying, then bullets, and soon both groups are living for revenge. The families consist of fairly one-note characters: On the Irish side, “Coastal” Eddie (Paul Gunning) makes his moves according to the weather, and “Smiley” O’Doul (scripter Paul T. Murray) is always on the verge of tears; the Italians must live with Dante (Billy Drago), who takes everything literally, and Jimmy D (standout Paul Ben-Victor), who thinks he’s Robert De Niro on Viagra. Louise Fletcher doesn’t have quite enough to do as Paddy’s wife, who takes over when things turn ugly.
It’s thin stuff, but helmer Tony Vitale (best known for “Kiss Me, Guido”) knows how to use these cardboard characters for smart comic effect, playing them against the more substantial creations played by Durning, Gazzara and, especially, Burt Young as Dominic, Gino’s cool-headed majordomo — a veteran gangster who collects bullet wounds like others save stamps. (In a dash of inside humor, Dominic loses his cool only when a Hollywood agent comes into his boss’s Italian joint.)
The filmmakers have given themselves a solid out when it comes to narrative limits: Modine’s bartender is making things up as he goes along, and he re-tailors the tale whenever Landau’s character interrupts him. Thanks to zippy wipes, wild camera moves, funny shock cuts and other montage devices (clipper Gregory Hobson won an editing prize in Seattle), the elements are blended in ceaselessly entertaining fashion.
Dialogue ranges from pleasantly derivative to wackily inspired. Dominic has a tendency to comment on other people’s grammar: “Whoa! Back-to-back compound adjectives.” Edgy music, kitschy, sun-soaked SoCal locations and a lot of squished animals (fake ones) help move along the proceedings briskly — no “Mean” feat, given the general tiredness of the genre.