Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” is yet another offbeat entry in the surprisingly resilient contempo subgenre of spiky comic thrillers about lowlife criminals. Tartly written and vividly performed by a fine ensemble cast, Gary Fleder’s bracingly entertaining first feature covers familiar ground in a fresh, breezy way. Miramax’s marketing target is its usual sophisticated, specialized audience, although the film’s humorous flourishes and unexpectedly romantic heart could snare it a more general public if reviews and sharp marketing get the good word out.
Due to its colorful roster of two-bit gangster characters who speak in uncustomarily high-fallutin’ ways, “Denver” will be conveniently pitched into orbit with the numerous other Tarantino clones that are turning up these days. This one distinguishes itself from the others by virtue of its highly principled , noble hero, a philosophical man devoted to doing right by others and trying to make the world a better place despite his lifelong criminal associations.
Fellow in question is Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia), a smooth-talking, sharp-dressing hipster who has retired from the life and started up an “afterlife advice” video company that tapes dying people’s testimonies for their survivors. Jimmy is in the midst of launching a promising romance with gorgeous Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar), when his former boss (Christopher Walken), an ailing criminal kingpin, asks him to do a small favor in return for a big payday.
The favor requested is for Jimmy to put a scare into the new boyfriend of the boss’ son’s ex-girlfriend and make it clear he’s not to enter Denver. To this end, Jimmy rounds up his old gang: Franchise (William Forsythe), a tough biker type who’s now got a weird wife and brood of kids; Critical Bill (Treat Williams), a hair-trigger psycho; Pieces (Christopher Lloyd), a disfigured porn theater projectionist; and Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), a hulking black man who has shifted from human to insect extermination.
But the action goes awry, pushing the big boss into loosing hit man Mr. Shhh (Steve Buscemi) on the boys. Given 48 hours, Jimmy urgently sets about trying to do right by his friends, including Dagney, the woman he believes would be the love of his life, and ends up leaving behind an unexpected testament of his own.
Some of writer Scott Rosenberg’s conceits, from characters’ names to the invariably sweet dispositions of nearly all the main characters, are too precious and cute by half, and the film’s eagerness to please may put some viewers off. But this is outweighed by the pic’s constant inventiveness,the bright, original dialogue and the vibrance of direction that can be felt in the excitingly alert perfs as well as the dynamic visual style.
While always operating as a charming, picaresque view of Brooklyn lowlife incongruously transplanted to Colorado, pic anchors itself to more substantial matters through Jimmy the Saint. What seems like a quick pickup of Dagney is transformed into a great romantic love, and Jimmy’s loyalty to his friends becomes as moving as it can be in such blatantly artificial surroundings.
Much of the credit for this must go to Garcia, who gives his most disarming, energetic and multifaceted perf. Utterly convincing from the get-go as a practiced ladies’ man and well-connected fixer, Garcia keeps the tone engagingly light as he injects increasing amounts of sincerity, idealism and emotion into the part, finally ending with a fully dimensional man one hates to say goodbye to.
Forsythe, Williams, Lloyd and Nunn create a memorable gallery of off-center types prone to bouts of articulate self-reflection. Walken adds to this collection of striking weirdos as the string-puller, while the exquisite Anwar leaves no doubt that a man could quickly decide she’s the one for whom he’s always been looking.
Fleder displays an impressively confident command of tone for a first-timer, and his creative team, notably lenser Elliot Davis and production designer Nelson Coates, back him up expertly.