by Ed Symkus

Often when you hear about a film that's been sitting around for awhile, it means that no one knew what to do with it, or that someone didn't think it was good enough to release. I went to a critics' screening of Knockaround Guys on May 8... of 2001. Now that's what I call sitting around. But I can't get anyone to tell me why it wasn't released or why now it is being released. Yet none of that matters, because it's a good little film, dark and nasty and funny at the same time, with an inspired cast.

Set initially in 1987 Brooklyn, it's about the night a 12-year-old boy becomes a man. The boy, Matty, is the nephew of a mobster named Teddy (John Malkovich), and in this world of criminals, the way to manhood is via a trip to the cellar. Down in the basement, Matty is ordered to whack a guy. But young Matty knows the man, and he just can't do it, proving to be a disappointment to Uncle Teddy.

Shooting up to the present, it looks like Matty (Barry Pepper) has stayed the straight and narrow route, at least as far as killings are concerned. But he has started working as a gofer for his freshly-out-of-jail mobster father, Benny aka "Chains" (Dennis Hopper, in full blown Dennis Hopper mode), who runs a "collection business." But Matty thinks it's time to better himself, to move up in the company, as does his pal Chris (Andrew Davoli), who's having the same sort of low self-esteem problems with his own mobster father. Add in upstart toughs Taylor and Marbles (Vin Diesel and Seth Green), and the story turns into one of four ambitious guys who have been brought up with the worst of values and are now ready to follow in all kinds of very bad footsteps.

The timing, at least for Matty, is just right. Dad says maybe his son can finally make up for that gaffe when he was a kid, and sends him off to pick up a loan of a half-million dollars being floated to him to cover some "shortages." Do things go wrong? Oh, yeah. Matty sends Marbles to do the deed instead, but Marbles isn't exactly staying away from the substances that make him feel better, and he loses the money to a couple of pot heads in Montana. By the time Marbles' pals arrive in the small town to help recover the cash, they've been noticed -- not only by the greedy local lawman (Tom Noonan), but also by town's toughest thugs, one of whom is beaten senseless by Taylor and told to find their money.

So there you have it -- a big bag of money story, similar to some of the ones told by Scottish filmmaker Danny Boyle (Trainspotting). But this one's all-American. There's some very funny stuff going on. For instance, the potheads, realizing what they've stumbled onto, head right to the corner mart and go on a frenzy of buying beef jerky and Cocoa Puffs. The rest of the funny stuff falls under the "comedy of errors" heading.

And some of it isn't so funny, most notably when different people get their turns at being beaten to a pulp, or when everything erupts into a shoot-out of major proportions.

But the whole thing, whether it's funny or deadly, is intense. Much of the mood is set by cinematographer Tom Richmond, who seems to have shot almost all of the film in either dark rooms or at night -- or both. But even more of the film's success is due to first-time directors Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who keep everything straight, no matter how convoluted things threaten to get. The film comes in at a trim 90 minutes, with no excess fat to be found anywhere.

That said, none of this would have worked if not for the terrific cast. Remember, this was done before Diesel was an action star -- yet after his excellent turn in the overlooked Boiler Room -- and he's damn scary in this one. Pepper, who has since been so good as the photographer in We Were Soldiers, wears a constant scowl that convincingly establishes the emotional pain he's in. And the quietly crazy Noonan as well as the malevolent Malkovich (who's at his best when he returns in the second half of the film) both really shine.

One of the nicest surprises about the film is that, while it all looks to be about people who aren't hiding anything, a whole lot of revelations are made. No one turns out to be even close to whom we thought they were.

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