Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead

There is no way to pin down this relentlessly quirky and inventive thriller. Hilarious, horrific and hopelessly moonstruck, Denver dodges every formula that might label it as a hand-me-down Pulp Fiction. Director Gary Fleder and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg, in strong feature debuts, team up with a blast of a cast to cut through the usual clichés. It's a perversely comic movie ride into the wild blue of crime and punishment.

Take Jimmy the Saint, the retired mob fixer played by Andy Garcia in a career-revitalizing performance. Educated in a seminary, Jimmy never killed for his sadistic, wheelchair-bound boss, the Man With the Plan (Christopher Walken at his spookiest, which is saying something). The silver-tongued Jimmy, with impeccable manners to match his suits, is a true romantic — a Don Quixote in a soul-sick world. He picks up Dagney (the luscious Gabrielle Anwar) at a bar by telling her she's a girl who "glides." Dagney is hooked by his pretty words, and Garcia, who gives a dynamite performance rich in romantic yearning, makes you understand why.

Ever since he quit the Man, Jimmy has been running a video service that allows dying people to tape afterlife advice for their relatives. Business isn't booming, so Jimmy agrees to perform one last job for the Man, who wants Jimmy to help his addlebrained, child-molesting son, Bernard (Michael Nicolosi), by discouraging a guy who's moving in on Bernard's girl.

The plan is to scare the guy off — that's all. For aid, soft-touch Jimmy calls in four hard-luck thugs from the old days. Franchise (William Forsythe) lives in a trailer park. Pieces (Christopher Lloyd in a stellar portrayal of dignity under siege) is a porn-movie projectionist. Easy Wind (Bill Nunn) exterminates insects. And Critical Bill (a killingly funny and frightening Treat Williams) is a short-fused psycho beyond all rehabilitation.

Critical Bill is instrumental in botching the plan, which ends in murder and causes the Man to seek revenge by hiring notorious hit man Mr. Shhh — just casting Steve Buscemi in the role is inspired — to wipe out Jimmy's buddies. Much brutality ensues in action and language. The Man spews out some vicious invective, notably at the expense of gays. "They get you interested in saving the rain forest," he teases Jimmy, "and next thing, you're chugging cock." But Jimmy persists in his role of savior, turning Denver into an acute morality tale that lifts the bar on crime as film entertainment.

From The Archives Issue 87: July 22, 1971