You Kill Me

The cold bottom of an empty bottle. This is where the mid-90s, Tarantino-branded genre of quippy gangsters and cold, hard hitmen has fallen. “You Kill Me” has the nerve to recognize the tilt-a-whirl world of a killer has been stripped completely dry of its invention, so the filmmakers have popped the threat out of unstoppable evil and lead it to Alcoholics Anonymous.

Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley) is a professional killer for the Polish mob, drinking himself into a stupor to numb his sins. When his boozing ruins an important assassination attempt on a rival (Dennis Farina), Frank is ordered to San Francisco to dry out. There, Frank heads to an AA meeting, where his eyes are opened to the world of addiction, helped along by his sponsor (Luke Wilson). Frank also finds himself attracted to a woman (Tea Leoni), forcing him to deal with his drinking and confront his murderous lifestyle in an effort to give himself completely to her.

Directed by John Dahl, “You Kill Me” leads the filmmaker back to the hard-boiled world of killers and double-crosses that made his earlier career (“Red Rock West,” “The Last Seduction,” “Kill Me Again”) spark of creativity. The twist is that “Kill” is actually a peculiar amalgamation of a comedy and thriller, observing the wonky line Frank walks between his old life as a death merchant as his new one as a man fighting his demons every moment in an effort to be a productive member of society.

That struggle is what keeps “Kill” so appealing and, well, oddly humorous. Dahl is very respectful of the screenplay’s various emotional colors, keeping the viewer in a state of unrest as Frank attempts to shove his complicated life in the proper direction. Kingsley is a dream as Frank, turning a potentially simplistic interpretation of a bad guy’s life into a striking wave pool of fallibility. Every time Frank jumps off the wagon or makes a foolish mistake with his ladylove, Dahl and Kingsley make it feel like a sock in the gut. This type of character investment is a rare breed indeed, and represents the very essence of why “Kill” is a step forward for this wheezing genre of bullies, broads, and bullets.

Not to ignore the basics, Dahl includes vivid moments of violence and operatic mob-driven revenge to keep the viewer primed for danger. This is, after all, a movie about men fighting ferociously for any last grip of control. The sequences are pulled off cleanly, creating a palpable threat for Frank and his brothers in crime. Still, I was drawn more to the idiosyncratic ways Frank holds his life together and how Kingsley conveys magic with simple a shake of the eyes or a roll of shoulders. After years of working with dreadful filmmakers such as Peter Hyams and Uwe Boll, it’s easy to forget just how invaluable this man is to the art of screen performance.

Rating: B+