Watching the Mafia crime caper Knockaround Guys brings to mind such powerful predecessors as Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and The Usual Suspects--but the comparison only works if you start the sentence with ''Knockaround Guys is just not as good as .''
Mattie Demaret (Barry Pepper) should be the heir to a Mafia kingdom, but ever since he was branded a sissy at age 12 for refusing to shoot at point-blank range the man who sent his father to prison he's been an errand boy. So he sets out to prove himself to his pop, Benny Chains (Dennis Hopper), and his uncle, Teddy Deserve (John Malkovich), by arranging to transport a sack of cash across the country. He counts on his friend Marbles (Seth Green) to get it there intact, but unfortunately the coke-sniffing pilot and general screw-up sniffs some coke and, well, screws up, losing the cash somewhere in Montana. Mattie heads out to Big Sky country to save the day, bringing along two more friends: Taylor (Vin Diesel) provides the muscle; Tony (Andrew Davoli) provides the charm and good looks. As the foursome scrambles to reclaim the cash from the crooked sheriff of Wibaux, Mont., they discover talents and strengths they never knew they had. When the focus is on the caper and the pace is quick, Knockaround Guys has a youthful exuberance that's fun to watch, but when things slow down to give the boys a chance to moan about how tough it is growing up Mafia and working as errand boys to their high-ranking daddies, the audience takes a real pounding.
Given his character's pivotal role, Malkovich should dominate the scenes he's in, and he does. Trouble is, his Brooklyn accent has serious issues and it distracts the audience from both his performance and the story itself. Hopper comes off better, but he's not asked to do a heck of a lot--just be a tough dad and a tougher underlord. Pepper, in the leading role, owns this movie, and his performance will no doubt establish him as one of the ''ones to watch'' in coming years. As for Vin Diesel and Seth Green, they're both real talents in their respective genres--Green's got a great sense of comic timing, and he can do drama, too, and Diesel is perhaps the first of his kind: an intelligent body-builder type. While Knockaround Guys tries to make the most of its talented cast, the acting suffers from the same problem as the story--the pacing's off. The movie insists on stopping the action so that the actors can deliver the most ''meaningful'' lines in a full frame shot while speeeeaaaakkkkiiiing veeerrry sloooowwwly. When Diesel talks tough and picks fights, or Malkovich gets as creepy as only he (and perhaps Jeremy Irons) can be, or Green has a quirky freak-out, the film seems like it might work. But then there's that close-up, that insistence on lingering over the lines that are supposed to prove a point--and it just kills the story, which really had a lot of potential.
The lion's share of the problems with Knockaround Guys can be attributed to the novice direction of Brian Koppelman and David Levien. Although they've written for the screen before (Rounders), and they wrote this screenplay as well, the added responsibility of directing weighs heavily on them. They don't seem to have achieved enough distance from the words they wrote to allow them to translate the script meaningfully to the screen. It plays like a novel edited by its own writer, who caught the basic grammar mistakes but missed the crucial, big-picture flaw that will ultimately land the book on the bargain shelf. It's no wonder that Knockaround Guys was held back from a U.S. release for almost a year after its European debut (in Italy of all places) in November 2001, and it's no wonder it's releasing here just in time for the notoriously slow pre-holiday movie season.
Knockaround Guys is a poorly executed knock-off of better films in the same vein. Rent Reservoir Dogs for the real deal; see Knockaround Guys only if you're a Vin Diesel fan (there are several rippling-muscle moments).