With a nod toward Quentin Tarantino and an appreciative wink at Lyle Kessler’s “Orphans,” “Suicide Kings” is a smart and snappy drama tinged with dark humor and brimming with self-confidence. Pic falters a bit in the final reel, when it deals from below the deck for one ironic twist too many and studiously ignores at least one gaping plot hole. Still, this cleverly constructed tale of four rich kids who get in way over their heads when they kidnap a notorious crime boss may score more than chump change during its early-1998 theatrical run. Ancillary prospects are even brighter.
Christopher Walken gives his most engaged and engaging performance in quite some time in the central role of Charles Barrett, aka Carlo Bartolucci, a semi-retired New York capo. Barrett lets his guard down one evening and is taken hostage by four twentysomething friends from wealthy families: Avery (Henry Thomas), Max (Sean Patrick Flanery), Brett (Jay Mohr) and T.K. (Jeremy Sisto).
As they hold the heavily sedated mobster prisoner in the summer home of a fifth buddy, the amateur kidnappers reveal the method behind their seeming madness: They plan to use Barrett as a bargaining chip to win the release of Lisa (Laura Harris), Avery’s sister and Max’s girlfriend, who has been abducted by more professional (albeit far less well-bred) criminals.
Naturally, Barrett is highly chagrined, and not just because T.K., a pre-med student, has severed one of Barrett’s fingers. (The dismemberment echoes what has been done to Lisa by her captors.) Even so, the mobster agrees to have his lawyer (Cliff De Young) raise the $2 million ransom demanded for Lisa’s return. More important, Barrett also orders Lono (Denis Leary), his hotheaded enforcer, to “convince” various underworld types to reveal the whereabouts of Lisa’s kidnappers.
Fairly early in the proceedings, Barrett realizes that Lisa’s abduction likely was an inside job. And that means one (and maybe more) of his captors can’t be taken at face value. As the evening progresses, Barrett — who, despite T.K.’s best efforts, is bleeding to death — stealthily attempts to turn the friends against one another.
In this, he is aided by Ira (Johnny Galecki), the fifth buddy, who expects a simple night of poker playing and is shocked when he arrives to find a bound and bleeding mobster in his parents’ well-appointed living room. Ira knew nothing about the kidnapping scheme — but he does know that if his parents discover bloodstains and other damage in their summer home, he’ll be in big trouble.
Director Peter O’Fallon, working from an often profanely funny screenplay by Wayne Rice and Gina Goldman, does a generally fine job of sustaining pace and tension while juggling subplots and time frames. He stumbles only when he stops the narrative dead in its tracks for a flashback triggered by Lono’s visit to an ex-prostitute (Laura San Giacomo). She remembers the night when Barrett, then a longhaired, quick-tempered “made man,” gunned down her brutal pimp. It’s undeniably funny to see Walken in a shaggy black wig and a shiny suit, but the sequence is eminently disposable.
When he isn’t occupied with dead-serious rough stuff, Leary provides some explosively hilarious comic relief as Lono, a motor-mouth tough guy who’s constantly complaining about his unseen nagging wife. (Lono also complains that “because of that O.J. thing” he can no longer wear his beloved Bruno Magli shoes.) More laughs are provided by the well-cast Galecki, who plays Ira as a whiny hanger-on who tries to curry Barrett’s favor, if only to avoid retribution if and when the mobster is released.
Each of the four young actors cast as the kidnapping co-conspirators gets the chance to register solidly in a showcase scene. Better still, they establish a thoroughly persuasive give-and-take as longtime friends who begin to doubt themselves, and one another, as their half-baked plan unravels. Mohr, late of “Jerry Maguire” and “Picture Perfect,” is particularly good as the unofficial ringleader, whose motives may be less than noble.
Chris Baffa’s fluid camerawork is a major plus for “Suicide Kings.” Other tech values are first rate across the board.