The Spanish Prisoner
Directed and written by David Mamet. Starring Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon, Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara, and Ricky Jay. At area theaters.
Pulling off a caper requires cunning. Pulling off a caper movie requires cunning and artistry, especially in an era when special effects have made film reality suspect. First, the moviemaker has to convince an audience that he's laid his cards on the table. Then he has to reshuffle and switch decks without anybody noticing. And when he finally shows his hand, he has to make viewers feel had and happy -- outwitted, not simply tricked. The Usual Suspects was the last movie to follow that three-step program spectacularly well.
Suicide Kings stumbles between the first and second steps. The story has an adequate hook. A gang of overgrown preppies (Jay Mohr, Henry Thomas, Sean Patrick Flanery, and Jeremy Sisto) kidnap a retired New York crime boss (Christopher Walken) so he'll help them out of a jam. A couple of thugs have kidnapped Thomas' sister (who's also Flanery's girlfriend) -- for a $2 million ransom. The buddies figure that Walken still has enough juice to intimidate the kidnappers or pay them off, though he has no connection to the original crime or to any of "the boys." (He's even deracinated his name from Carlo Bartolucci to Charlie Barrett.) But instead of twisting that hook, the first-time feature director, Peter O'Fallon, overloads it with jokes and gimmicks about the inability of these well-bred layabouts to do anything right.
Of course, nobody messes this badly with a movie Mafioso and gets away with it. But no one told these guys, who are a cross between the Billionaire Boys Club and the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. For one thing, they don't brief their hide-out man on the plan; this poor schnook (Johnny Galecki) thinks he's opening up his parents' suburban mansion for a poker party. (Among the young'uns, Galecki's hilarious high dudgeon takes the acting honors, even though his nerdy dithering eventually wears you out.)
For another, there's the matter of the Finger. Even if you're willing to accept the other absurdities, this pesky little digit is apt to stick in your craw. They cut off Walken's ring finger, ostensibly to avenge an identical outrage perpetrated on Thomas' sister. They think that their eye-for-an-eye attitude will make Walken and his friends take them more seriously. But they slice away before they know whether they have to do any more persuading -- indeed, they detach Walken's finger as soon as they take him into custody. The slowly-pulled-into-focus plot features a double cross followed by a triple cross; it should gain new shadings with every blood-splash, and should satisfy, not snooker, an audience when the picture becomes dark-crystal clear. The act of cutting off that finger, however, grows more important and more nonsensical (given the pedigree of the characters) as the film goes on. At the end you want to ram it down the screenwriters' throats.
Director O'Fallon, who previously worked on such acclaimed TV series as Northern Exposure and Party of Five, has an accomplished pointillist technique. He nails every queasy detail or suggestion, and achieves chaotic terror when the guys struggle with Walken as they hurtle through the Holland Tunnel. Too bad. By the time we get to the abortive big scene of Walken reciting each of his kidnappers' character flaws, O'Fallon's hyped-up clarity merely underlines the bludgeoning style of the script. And the flashback involving Flanery and Thomas' sister descends into the slick, febrile world of Fox TV. Suicide Kings is named for the wild cards in a poker game, but it plays like Tarantino 90210.
The movie has a few funny, lifelike bits -- like Walken advising his lawyer, "Whatever you do, don't send your kids to boarding school," or that sizzling street wit Denis Leary, as Walken's unruly but righteous No. 1 man, defending his purchase of shoes made from the skin of a stingray. But there aren't enough of them. Even the stuff about the finger would be easier to take if the movie as a whole were more offhand.
Is the opposite of offhand onhand? If so, The Spanish Prisoner is the most onhand movie since Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. The writer/director, David Mamet, delights in his own supposed cleverness; he wants you to scratch your head while he manipulates your brain. Campbell Scott plays a researcher in some unspecified field who invents an unspecified yet fabulously valuable new "process." He's certain to be victimized by someone -- if not his niggardly boss (Ben Gazzara), then a mysterious, ultrarich new friend (Steve Martin). Mamet's debut as a feature writer/director, House of Games (1987), was a serviceable sting film named for a seedy city gambling joint. The Spanish Prisoner, which is set in the Caribbean, New York, and Boston, might as well take place in the Penthouse of Games.
This laboriously labyrinthine immorality play has gained Mamet his best (film) reviews to date partly because it's so upscale -- and so compatible with reports of soaring stock prices. It's about a yuppie who doesn't want to see his chance to enter the world of the superrich disappear while his employers decide how much they owe him for a formula he cooked up while on salary. When Scott fails to get his company's assurances that he'll be duly compensated for his work, he falls for the advice of the dapper Martin, who knows how corporations exploit nice guys and resent them for their good nature.
In a dull, plodding way, the film works on the audience's identification with Scott as a kind of white-collar Joe Six-Pack -- Charlie Chardonnay. Even his weird denatured vocabulary has the sound of a language developed in library stacks and office cubicles. When he's trying to buck a gal up, he tells her that she's "loyal and true and not too hard to look at." Unfortunately, most of the characters speak with the same sham abstraction and judiciousness. "Thus are men made equal," quips Martin, after he opens a Swiss bank account for Scott. Scott's avuncular company-lawyer friend (Ricky Jay) spits out secondhand epigrammatic mouthfuls on the order of, "Worry is the interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due."
The language has none of the vulgarity of a lowdown Mamet opus like American Buffalo or Glengarry Glen Ross, and none of the energy or invention either. (Or the originality: When all else fails, Mamet quotes the classics, like Thoreau's "Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.") Mamet did a wonderfully fluid English version of Uncle Vanya, but the dialogue in The Spanish Prisoner sounds as if he translated some 19th-century melodrama from English into Russian and then back again. How else do you explain the secretary with a crush on Scott -- who's supposed to be a dumb brunette -- saying, fancifully, "My troika was pursued by wolves"? Moments later, she asks, "When you own the company, can I be queen?"
With all due respect to his delightful scenario for Wag the Dog, if Mamet is the new Hitchcock I'm the king of Albania. Hitchcock's gamesmanship had a zest and glee that released the sexuality of his actors. Mamet's oddly earnest ingenuity reduces Scott, Martin, and Gazzara to a trio of empty suits (though the sexiest thing in the movie is the way Martin wears clothes). The unluckiest performer is Rebecca Pidgeon (Mamet's real-life wife); she's stuck in the jarringly off-key role of the love-struck secretary. With an obviousness worthy of future Ph.D. theses on "Appearance and Reality in David Mamet," her character remarks to Scott, "You never know who anybody is." (Martin later tells him, "Good people, bad people, generally look like what they are.") Pidgeon's character is such a gee-willikers gal that she might have stepped in from Fargo. She's 100 percent inauthentic, whether she's falling for Scott or just playing him for a pigeon.