Being a hit-man is no different than any other job. You're expected to stay sober and stay awake long enough to do what it is you have to do. So, more is the pity for Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley) when a bottle of vodka causes him to pass out in his car and make him miss rubbing out Edward O'Leary (Denis Farina). This means the head of the Irish mob in Buffalo is going to make his scheduled appointment in New York with the Chinese gangsters who are going to bankroll him so he can edge out his Polish rivals. Namely, Frank's family. It's time for Frank to clean up his act, and his clan ships him off to San Francisco to do it.
You Kill Me is a new comedy from John Dahl, the man behind such neo-hardboiled touchstones as The Last Seduction and Rounders. Working with a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the scribes behind the Narnia movies), Dahl employs a dry wit to achieve a playful genre burner. The movie doesn't shoot for guffaws, but calculated chuckles, keeping every detail in check the way its lead assassin would orchestrate a kill. Sometimes, it manages to be very funny, but even better, it also manages to be touching, poignant, and surprisingly charming.
Kingsley really hits some kind of new height for himself here. Frank is gruff and almost completely self-contained. The actor shuffles around with his head down, mumbling in a Polish accent, contempt for the rest of the world in his eyes. Given the jokers that get tossed at him, it's not hard to see why. The head of his family, Roman (Philip Baker Hall), sends him out West because he knows a guy there that can keep an eye on Frank while he dries out. Bill Pullman plays Dave, a sleazy real estate agent with a gut and an explosive cowlick. It's almost an act of cruelty that Frank has to answer to this yutz. Dave gets him a job in a funeral home, a sick joke. Instead of making the dead bodies, Frank is now going to make them look pretty.
It's at the funeral home, however, that Frank meets Laurel (Téa Leoni). She's there because her stepfather has died. She didn't like him very much, and her revelation of that fact creates an instant honesty between her and Frank. The relationship with her starts to cause Frank to get honest with himself. He begins to take AA seriously, getting real with his sponsor (Luke Wilson), and even taking the honesty thing too far by opening up to his entire group. It's one of the funnier scenes in You Kill Me, and a perfect example of why this film succeeds as well as it does. Dahl never overplays his hand. He sees the incongruities in his story, of putting this character in a mundane situation with regular people, and he lets these things rub together on their own. He doesn't force the jokes, but rather let's them occur spontaneously.
You Kill Me is also smart enough to not make everything too tidy. Laurel has her own issues, and Leoni is as attractive as always by playing her as tough, yet appropriately insecure and vulnerable. The romance is sugary, but not overly so. It's rather cute watching Frank use a watermelon to teach Laurel the proper way to slit a throat. Just when you think there is nothing new to be said about love...
Given that the goal of Kingsley's character is to get his life back on track, the story is of course going to veer back to Buffalo and the feuding mobsters. Dahl and his writers construct You Kill Me in such a way that this makes sense. We are never too far away from the gang war, and Frank never renounces his dark profession. Rather, he's proud of what he does and how well he does it. He just has to learn to do it without drinking. As with everything in the movie, Dahl doesn't overdo the climax, he just lets it happen as it would. It's a feel-good gangster moment, the kind of peace Tony Soprano has been seeking for a decade now. It's a satisfying denouement for a bad man looking to make good. These are rather large metaphorical and philosophical conceits, but You Kill Me does it easy all the way, hitting the mark right between the eyes.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joëlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.