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The Hitman Diaries
by Danny King
(Discounted Paperback from Amazon)
. "You Kill Me"

For years the Polish mob in Buffalo, New York has been comfortably pursuing the profits of corruption in typical gang fashion. And, when someone needed to be whacked, they had ace hitman Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley) to take care of it. Frank, bald-headed, off-beat and pridefully professional, takes only one thing more seriously than his work: his prodigious consumption of booze. And that thirst has become so great it's affecting his work.

When the Irish mob, headed by sociopath Edward O'Leary (Dennis Farina), shows signs of moving in on the gang's territory, Polish family patriarch and heretofore undisputed boss Roman Krzeminski (Philip Baker Hall) gives Frank the go-ahead to get rid of the Irishman at the airport. But Frank is so hammered when he stakes out his position in the parking lot, he sleeps through his target's arrival and, for the first time in his career, blows a hit. The result of this will be highly consequential.

Livid with anger and with no thought of granting a second chance, Roman banishes his family assassin to the distant outpost of San Francisco where the gang has friends and associates to control Frank while he's drying out. In fact, they're assigned to make sure he does.

The task mostly goes to loosely-moraled, urbanely dressed real estate agent Dave (Bill Pullman), who places his twisted charge in a very nice apartment and sets him up with a job at a mortuary where work on corpses isn't entirely new. That done, Dave, threatening to report any failures on Franks' part to Roman and the mob, sees Frank into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Exposed to a social environment that's completely alien and not a little fussy, Frank rejects it and returns to his addictive impulses. But Dave and AA sponsor Tom (Luke Wilson), a Golden Gate Bridge toll-taker and gay alcoholic, holds Frank's feet to the soil of recovery until they take root. Further encouraging him in the virtues of sobriety is the success of his work at the mortuary.

His cadaver restorations are so good, in fact, that berieved relatives of the dead express their gratitude at the great job he's done with their embalmed loved ones. One such client is hardened but pretty Laurel Pearson (Tea Leoni) who not only expresses gratitude for his work, but leaves the impression that she might have a certain fascination for the strangely unique hammerhead of a man. His detection of her interest is enough to inspire him to ask her for a date -- a practice, we sense, that's even more alien than his AA meetings. From this, we discover that she's got a "thing" for the unconventional in a man and, before you know it, an unshakeable romance is born.

Hey, is this a romantic comedy? I'd have to say yes, even as dead bodies, old scores, and wayward drunks litter the landscape. The comedy is satirical, wry, self-conscious, and just as pervasive as the brutality and violent destruction. Part of its uniqueness is in the integration of tongue-in-cheek "Get Shorty" comedy and the gory elements of the thriller framework. The only negativity to point out is the technique of the writers' design that shows in much of this, rather than organic expression of visceral involvement.

For those who may consider that a minor concern, the movie does exploit the hitman-as-human-being theme in an entirely original way, which is a lot to say after "The Matador" and, from Belgium, "The Alzheimer Case" (aka, "The Memory of a Killer").

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely ("The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe") wrote it (as they admit in a trade paper quote) to get an agent -- apparently not expecting anyone would want to actually make it. But director John Dahl ("The Great Raid," "Rounders") and an accomplished set of actors with a taste for the off-beat certainly did, and milked it for every ironic, twisty note of loopy derangement. This noir love and hate story is black, but not bleak.

The matchup of Leoni and Kingsley produces the right chemistry to define the studied unconventionality of the movie while exploring the mysteries of romantic attraction. Both have staked out campy, oddball territory in the past; she with her Julie Mott character in "Bad Boys," he with his fearsome and spooky mob boss in "Suspect Zero." When we realize how much we're rooting for this relationship to work out (if we do), we become aware of what we can accept and of the emotional investment we've got tied up in the movie.

Given the extremes found here, and the pearls of manic originality, it calls for more suspension of disbelief than suds in Frank's beer stein. It answers that constantly bedevilling question, "Can a mob hitman find love even while he's drying out and settling scores?" But if you can put the contrivance factor aside and join him on that barstool, the payoff is a brand of hilarity that could keep you in stitches. It's killer.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Ben Kingsley is Frank Falenczyk
Polish hitman extraordinaire.

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