Despite the reiterated assertions from policemen, prosecutors, and the media that the Mafia no longer exercises enormous power, or even exists in any recognizable incarnation, the gangster movie, bless its tough little heart, maintains its devotion to the Mob. That organization provides the model for the history, the myth, the ethos of the form, suggesting the romance of violence and the ideal of loyalty. In an appropriately modern parody of chivalry; its ethnic associations, as The Sopranos reminds us, also establish a distorted version of Italian American family life. And the structure and methods of the Mob, along with the theory and application of its business, underline its status as a kind of shadow capitalism --- the bosses in Godfather II, cutting up a cake decorated with a map of Cuba (Coppola seldom shrinks from obvious symbolism), proclaim that they will be "bigger than US Steel."
The familiar twin engines of family and money drive the new gangster flick, Knockaround Guys, which efficiently juggles a number of subjects and situations within its story of Mafia fathers and sons. Young Matty Demaret (Barry Pepper), the son of a top boss known as Benny Chains (Dennis Hopper), pleads with his father to give him some responsibility and importance, a position of respect, in the Brooklyn mob. His father's notoriety prevents him from landing an honest job, so he must fall back on family. Benny and his assistant, Teddy Deserve (John Malkovich) --- the names belong to characters in Damon Runyon --- reluctantly entrust Matty with arranging the transport of $500,000 in cash from Spokane to New York, a job that, naturally, goes terribly wrong.
Matty enlists his friend Johnny Marbles (Seth Green), another aspiring hoodlum, to fly the cash across country in his small plane. But when Johnny, his mind clouded by fatigue and cocaine, spots a couple of cops during a fuel stop at a tiny Montana airfield, he panics and dumps the bag of money. Matty and two other buddies fly out to Wibaux, Montana, to track down and retrieve the dough, which ends up in the possession of the local sheriff and his deputy, who decide to keep it for themselves. The movie then starts to fuse the gangster flick with the Western, as the four Brooklyn wise guys encounter the folkways of the high plains, complete with pickup trucks, country music, deputies in cowboy hats, and a collection of local thugs.
Although the movie fails to fully develop the city-country, East-West conflicts, it establishes, with relative understatement, a sense of the sinfulness of the whole culture, urban and rural. The hicks in the sticks may appear slow and naive, but they act out of the same greed, and practice the same brutality, as the mobsters. The tiny, two-deputy town even boasts the same sort of crooked cops as the big city --- when Matty tells Teddy Deserve, who's come out to Wibaux to help him, that the cops are dirty, Teddy simply replies simply that they're cops, as if the adjective were redundant. The characters' cynical assumption of the totality of human corruption pervades the entire film, so we understand that any of the traditional notions of the nobility of rural life amount to sheer sentimentality.
Despite its strong Western influence, Knockaround Guys never forgets its roots in the gangster flick. When Matty and his friend Taylor (Vin Diesel) discuss their plight as ambitious young gangsters held down by their fathers and other authority figures within the organization, Taylor articulates the venerable gangster theology: the fatalistic belief that they cannot escape their backgrounds, their circumstances, their lives --- indeed, their destinies. An implacable fate governs the characters and actions of just about every gangster film, and Knockaround Guys properly acknowledges that ineluctable fact.
Oddly, although the muscular Diesel plays the toughest and most brutal of the quartet of wise guys, he displays the most intelligence in his understanding of their difficulties and his solutions to their problems. When he confronts the strongest, scariest, meanest guy in Wibaux, he delivers a little lecture on his own history as a street fighter. He recounts the lessons he's learned from his 500 fights, speaking with the weary melancholy of a reluctant, and even compassionate, warrior, then proceeds to beat the town bully into jelly.
If Diesel could learn to clear up his clotted diction and strengthen his weak, husky voice along with all his muscles, he might yet find a place among the action heroes. Surprisingly, despite those drawbacks, he still might be the most compelling character in the film.
Although it depends on the typical Hollywood high concept --- our flopping, gasping, old friend, the fish out of water --- the movie generally handles its obvious contrasts with care and restraint. It captures the dark interiors of the gangsters' Brooklyn hangout, the city streets and tall buildings, with the same authenticity as the sleazy little backwoods motel and the windswept plains of Montana, steadfastly refusing to glamorize either location. Its several scenes of brutal violence, its atmosphere of corruption, its objective exploration of a world in which everybody is a criminal of some kind, indicate that the values and meanings of the gangster film may now have become universal, permeating even the purported purity of the Great American West, where the cowboy and the sheriff turn out to be as criminal as any big city gangster, fouling the last place of our lost, mythic innocence.
Knockaround Guys, starring Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Seth Green, Andrew Davoli, John Malkovich, Dennis Hopper, Tom Noonan, Shawn Doyle, Kevin Gage; written and directed by Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.