Add Kevin Spacey, Oscar winner for The Usual Suspects, to the list of adventurous actors with an urge to direct. In this vividly intense crime drama, Spacey gets his wish by staying behind the camera and packing a top cast, led by Matt Dillon, Gary Sinise and Faye Dunaway, into a New Orleans bar at 4 a.m., and setting himself the task of holding us in thrall while they act, act, act.
The script, by first-timer Christian Forte, 25, the son of ’50s pop icon Fabian, doesn’t help. It’s awash with pretension as three armed thieves — Dillon, Sinise and William Fichtner — take hostages at Dino’s Last Chance Bar (note the leaden symbolism) and discuss existential issues of survival while federal agent Joe Mantegna hovers outside. M. Emmet Walsh plays Dino, and Dunaway helps him run the bar, now occupied by a regular (John Spencer), a young pool shark (Skeet Ulrich) and a French dude (Viggo Mortensen) in a suit and saggy socks.
Old movie posters in the bar hint at gangster action, but “Alligator” delivers the Bogart of The Petrified Forest and the Cagney of The Time of Your Life — both films of verbose plays that trapped the stars in claustrophobic dives. Amazingly, Spacey creates dynamism in a stagy setting and draws astute performances, notably from Dillon, who even gets a laugh by checking the birth date on Dunaway’s driver’s license and cracking. “1956, my ass.” Sadly, Spacey’s deft directing can’t offset a script that wants to be Chinatown and ends up as indigestible chop suey.