Knockaround Guys

on October 11, 2002 by Sheri Linden
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   In the nearly two years that "Knockaround Guys" has been sitting on the shelf, the marquee allure of its two leads--Barry Pepper (who stars in Spike Lee's upcoming "The 25th Hour") and, especially, Vin Diesel (who toplines the superagent action film "XXX")--has grown significantly. The presence of John Malkovich and Dennis Hopper in key supporting roles won't hurt box-office chances for this straightforward crime drama, a fast-paced riff on the oft-visited themes of father-son expectations, honor and betrayal. Though there's something too self-consciously movieish about the testosterone-driven tale, the economy of storytelling, offbeat touches and solid performances all work in its favor. The result is entertaining, if hardly earth-shattering.

   Brooklyn meets Montana in "Guys," which centers on twentysomething Matty (Pepper), son of mid-level mobster Benny "Chains" Demaret (Hopper). Matty turns in desperation to his father's illegal gambling business after having exhausted efforts to get a legitimate job. Although Matty proved as a young boy that he wasn't cut out for his father's line of work, Benny gives Matty another chance, urged by his partner and brother-in-law, Teddy (Malkovich), to let him handle a money pick-up in Spokane. Matty enlists his less-than-reliable friend Johnny Marbles (Seth Green, in a convincing performance but looking like he shared a batch of black hair dye with Pepper) to make the cross-country flight in his small plane. When Marbles stops in the tiny burg of Wibaux, Montana, to refuel, and finds the local cops at the airport, he ditches the bag of cash, which two stoner skateboard kids promptly find and put to use, enhancing their lifestyle with extra bong loads and mega-purchases of convenience store snacks. Enter Marbles' Brooklyn buddies--Matty, the ambivalent Scarpa (Andrew Davoli) and the quietly menacing Taylor (Diesel, sporting a giant Star of David tattoo)--to retrieve the stolen loot. The culture clash plays out with understated humor as the New Yorkers navigate the inner workings of the small town, culminating in a showdown with the corrupt sheriff (Tom Noonan).

   Writer-directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien keep the story moving, leaving no time to dwell on its credibility lapses. The strong cast manages to transcend the film's more derivative touches--including echoes of "Reservoir Dogs," complete with Tarantinoesque bursts of brutal violence. Hopper and Malkovich play upon their iconic power, the latter chewing up the scenery in his singular, off-center style. But the most compelling elements of the film are the two leads. Pepper, with his strange beauty and deep gaze, and Diesel, whose godlike physique and low-key intensity have "movie star" written all over them, are eminently watchable. Beyond that, they infuse their characters' sense of loyalty and striving for redemption with an affecting poignancy. Starring Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, John Malkovich, Dennis Hopper and Seth Green. Directed and written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Produced by Lawrence Bender, Brian Koppelman and David Levien. A New Line release. Drama. Rated R for violence, language and some drug use. Running time: 91 min

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