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Disorganized crime turns boys into men in Knockaround Guys.

The Knockaround Guys, minus Vin Diesel.
  • The Knockaround Guys, minus Vin Diesel.

Those Reservoir Dogs are proving hard to shake, and in Knockaround Guys -- which could be renamed Knockoff Guys -- the comparisons to other contemporary pulp fictions fly fast and furious. Herein -- thanks in part to Quentin Tarantino's producer, Lawrence Bender -- are contained such familiar elements as the shticky members of the makeshift gang, the caper gone loco, the suits and sunglasses, the posturing, the cocky edits, and the requisite dashes of ultraviolence. Yet rather than submit a carbon copy, writers/producers/directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien (screenwriters of Rounders) strive to cut and paste a revised blueprint, in which groovy goons and goombahs go to redneck land to find out what makes a man. The result is a testosterone-and-adrenaline cocktail served in a cheap, novelty dribble glass; quaff it fast, without thinking, and you'll catch a modest buzz.

In the opening prologue, we're privy to a nasty bit of character assassination in Brooklyn, circa 1987. Little Matty Demeret (as a child, Andrew Francis) is being driven to his coming-of-age hit, to shoot Benny Chains (Dennis Hopper), the man who ratted out Matty's kingpin father, sending him to the big house. In charge is psychotic Uncle Teddy Deserve (John Malkovich), who puts Matty through his goodfella exam with a mad glint and an absurd, pseudo-Brooklyn accent from the far reaches of outer space. Matty fails to make the kill -- as Teddy knew he would -- and is marked for life as a family insider sans cojones, a glorified errand boy with an irritable attitude, a Cadillac, and no claim to his own fame.

As a young adult, Matty (Barry Pepper of Battlefield Earth, properly primed by that exercise in weirdness to play old-school Italian . . . I guess) struggles between his rock and his hard place. Although he desperately wants to be a sports agent, no sensible employer will take on a mob brat. So he turns to his paroled pop with a request: Even though mob activity is dissolving rapidly (no one here seems familiar with The Sopranos), Matty wants just one real "job," so people will take him seriously. Benny hesitantly agrees to let his son arrange the pickup in Spokane of half a million in ill-gotten funds -- a task that will allow Matty to engage in plenty of thoughtful-thug yammering with his friends, who also happen to be sons of gangsters.

Confused Chris Scarpa (Andrew Davoli) claims much of the dialogue's sparse humor (at an intersection, he ponders, "Why is it every junkie thinks newspaper cleans glass?"), and the niftily named amateur pilot Johnny Marbles (Seth Green) gets to radiate enough punk-ass shtick to make Austin Powers's Scott Evil seem sweet. But most audiences will show up to see Matty's insanely aggressive buddy, Taylor (currently marketable Vin Diesel), a half-Jewish ruffian with an appetite for destruction, whose main task here is to bench-press the box office. Once Marbles mucks up the mission, it's up to the boys to visit bucolic little Wibaux, Montana, to find out who swiped the bag and show them how business is done in Brooklyn, where honor is key and "If you find a bag of dog shit, you go looking for who it belongs to."

What all this means for you, the consumer of commercial motion pictures, is a whole lot of redundant bad-boy pageantry, leading up to a humdinger of a predictable ending. Along the way, things get pretty darned silly -- the boys stay in a motel called MOTEL and happen upon an unattended shooting range in the middle of nowhere -- but taken simply as rowdy, rite-of-passage pabulum, Knockaround Guys is flatly directed but satisfactory entertainment. There are a couple of feeble giggles at the local sticky-finger potheads (one of whom is Dov Tiefenbach of Jason X, who obviously has a friend in casting at New Line), and Hopper delivers such poetry as "Don't piss down my back and tell me it's raining!"

It's a lot less hit than miss, however, when this movie -- collecting dust for a year or so prior to release -- struggles to say something. Knockaround Guys benefits from Tom Noonan (from the first Red Dragon adaptation, Manhunter) playing a wicked country sheriff, but directors Koppelman and Levien are no Coens; beyond the routine hillbillies-versus-city-boys thing, they have no appreciation for this culture clash, so they take out their thematic frustrations with clumsily staged violence, and it's just tedious. Nonetheless, as they attempt to teach their version of Dogs new tricks, they do rise to the occasion on one count: The quest of Matty and his friends to become real men feels real -- even if the characters' success is entirely questionable.

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More by Gregory Weinkauf

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