Apparently, the unfortunate sons of mafia bosses have little to look forward to outside of following in their fathers’ footsteps. No respectable business will take you on as an employee, no matter how straight-edged you might appear. No future seems bright, and even the gangster life has faded significantly since its heyday because of snitches and the FBI. Without the experience of their predecessors, all they can hope for is the life a “knockaround guy,” a gopher. That life, just like this movie, is drab, monotonous and completely stripped of the glory that it could have been.
Matty Demaret (Barry Pepper, “Saving Private Ryan”) has it rough. As the son of infamous crime family leader Benny “Chains” Demaret (Dennis Hopper, “Blue Velvet”), he can neither get the sports managing job he desires nor become a legitimate part of the family. When he was 11, his father’s next-in-command, Teddy (John Malkovich, “Being John Malkovich”), tested his toughness and grit to see if he could cut it; he failed. Disheartened by his lack of employment prospects, he turns to his father for work to prove his readiness, but the elders do not trust his willingness. His friends, as it seems, all have similar predicaments. Taylor Reese (Vin Diesel, “Boiler Room”) can never be a part of the mafia due to his Jewish relgion but only fits in that domain, Johnny Marbles (Seth Green, “Austin Powers”) is a screw-up who nobody trusts and Chris Scarpa (Andrew Davoli, “The Yards”) lives the legitimate life after his father had been freed from prison. Nothing fits for any of them.
After some pleading, not enough to be believable, Benny “Chains” gives his son a job. It is so simple that it would take effort to err. Of course, Matty makes Johnny the main player in the action, foreshadowing the certainty of mistakes. Johnny flies to Montana to pick up a package that he is forbidden to open, and on the return flight’s gas stop the sight of cops provokes him to drop the bag. Obviously, this is bad. When Marbles fails to retrieve the bag, consequently full of money, the rest of the wannabe crew has to come to the rescue. Problems occur when the cash falls into the hands of the local sheriff (Tom Noonan, “Manhunter”), and Teddy is forced to fly to their aid.
“Knockaround Guys” has a very interesting premise that has inherent meaning for the next generation of adults moving up into the business world. This idea of disenchantment could have worked almost as a powerful antithesis to popular gangster films.
However, the writer/director/producer team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien drag the intriguing nature of the story deep into the despair of blandness. It seems as though after the majesty of their first co-written screenplay “Rounders,” which became a great film, this pair ran out of interesting material for their second attempt. Directing and producing certainly provided no help. The plot is slowly developed and the characters are annoying and quite apathetic. A flat script, insipid characters and absence of style turn the film into a horribly mediocre piece.
The characters are extremely one-dimensional and stereotypical, as if Koppelman and Levien had mixed and matched from past gangster movies and removed any notion of personality. Performances of equipped and capable actors severely suffer from lack of motivation and direction. Talents like Pepper, Hopper, and Green are wasted as their roles become less and less interesting. Although Diesel has some bright moments and Malkovich is always a pleasure to watch, their acting is ultimately hampered by the linearity and stiffness of their characters and poor direction.
Most problematic in the film is the lack of a defined tone. While it begins as a more serious story, it develops into more of a cross-genre mess of attempts at humor, and it climaxes back to a serious, action driven clich