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Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995)

December 25th, 2007 · 2 Comments

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Jimmy the Saint (Andy Garcia) – once some type of gangster, now legit – struggles to get a business off the ground, videotaping interviews with terminally ill clients to enable them to pass their wisdom on to their kin. At a club, he spots the gorgeous Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar), and with a pickup line of “My name is Jimmy, and I just have one simple, impulsive question: Are you in love?” he gets her to agree to have dinner with him.

Goons interrupt Jimmy’s rhapsody to take him to the mansion of quadriplegic mobster Man With The Plan (Christopher Walken). The Man feels that his “village idiot” son – whose latest fiasco was grabbing a girl on a playground – is still despondent over breaking up with his college sweetheart. The girl’s new boyfriend is coming to Denver to ask her to marry him. The Man wants Jimmy to intercept the boyfriend on the highway and turn him around.

Given $50,000, little choice to say no, and freedom to assemble his own crew, Jimmy reunites with four associates from the old days. Franchise (William Forsythe) is a biker with three kids who runs a mobile home park. Pieces (Christopher Lloyd) a projectionist at a porno house suffering from a leper-like ailment. Easy Wind (Bill Nunn) dislikes the crazed Critical Bill (Treat Williams) due to a rumor that Bill ate feces while in prison.

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Disguised as cops, Pieces and Critical Bill stop the boyfriend outside town, but the job quickly spirals fatally out of control. The Man gives Jimmy 48 hours to get out of Denver, while his accomplices have been assigned fates worse than death at the hands of an assassin known as Mister Shush (Steve Buscemi). Jimmy chooses to stick around, tidying up the loose ends of his life, and attempting to out maneuver the grim reaper.

Production history
Scott Rosenberg had hopped from film schools at USC to NYU to UCLA. He never graduated, but while at UCLA, won the Samuel Goldwyn Writing Award for excellence in screenwriting. Rosenberg partnered with a buddy from Boston University named Gary Fleder, who wanted to direct. They sold projects to Joel Silver, New Line, and Paramount. The pair also wrote and directed two episodes of Tales From The Crypt.

As Rosenberg struggled to get a feature produced, his father died of cancer. Wanting to deal with that in his writing, he had an idea that was “less a crime story than a metaphor for a bunch of guys who have terminal diseases.” Appropriating his title from a Warren Zevon tune, Rosenberg originally had the idea to use money from Fleder’s father to make the movie themselves. Alec Baldwin passed on playing Jimmy the Saint, but Andy Garcia and plenty of other actors said yes.

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The film went into production just as a filmmaker named Quentin Tarantino was rising to acclaim. With its creative dialogue, crime gone wrong, and even a couple of Tarantino’s actors, critics saw Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead as a weak sister to Pulp Fiction. To distance the two films, Miramax held off on releasing Denver until December 1995. The resemblance was not lost on anyone. The film came and went from theaters, but has developed a loyal cult following.

In the niche of exciting failures, Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead is at the top of the heap. There are scenes that defy logic. There are scenes that are complete crap. There are also scenes that made me grin with their verve, as well as laugh out loud at their audacity. The reason to see the film is to listen to it. Employing biker slang, crime fiction slang, and slang he made up, Rosenberg’s ear is delightfully tuned to the offbeat.

Great slang isn’t the same as great dialogue though, and fantastic punchlines can’t atone for a lack of depth in these characters. Fleder’s missteps as a tyro director range from bad music cues, to mediocre casting. Walken and Buscemi are perfect for this, as is Fairuza Balk, as a plucky streetwalker Jimmy befriends. The rest of the cast never rises above the material. It is genuine though, and I recognize the attempt here to make a good film, as opposed to phoning one in.

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Christopher Null at writes, “The way I see it, any film starring Christopher Walken as a quadriplegic gangster has to have something going for it. And while Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead has something, I’m not quite sure what that is.”

“The movie seems to wallow in some pretty disgusting stuff, but without the weird charm that Tarantino features in his film. The dialogue is only moderately inspired, and just about the only pleasure in the film is watching what the actors do with it,” write Scott Hamilton & Chris Holland at Stomp Tokyo.

Dan Ray at Epinions says, “Had Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead been written by Quentin Tarantino it would be considered a classic. Instead it’s considered a trashy rip-off by the critics. Watch this film, it’s very cool and hip. It should be the finale to any Tarantino marathon.”

© Joe Valdez

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Moviezzz // Dec 26, 2007 at 6:06 am

    Great review.

    As a big Scott Rosenberg fan since BEAUTIFUL GIRLS, who even spends time defending his series OCTOBER ROAD (where Fleder has directed many episodes), I’m almost embarrassed to say I only saw this film once and remember very little about it.

    I will have to watch it again.

  • 2 Joe Valdez // Dec 26, 2007 at 12:40 pm

    Moviezzz: Like you, I hadn’t bothered to watch Denver in a decade. It’s worth another look – now that the critical backlash has been extinguished – particularly if you’re a Scott Rosenberg fan. I’ll have something to say about Beautiful Girls soon. Thanks for commenting!

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