Shoot me, please

What does a Polish-American gangster from Buffalo, New York, sound like? For most Texas-raised moviegoers, that’s hard to say. We don’t know a lot of them.

Nevertheless, we suspect they don’t sound like Ben Kingsley in director John Dahl’s You Kill Me. Kingsley, an intense actor whose risk-taking performances sometimes hit paydirt (Sexy Beast) and sometimes veer toward Pluto (Lucky Number Slevin), here attempts the Streep Maneuver with an accent that’s as foreign to him as Cantonese.

The strangeness of his speech would be easier to ignore if the character Kingsley plays had been drawn more convincingly. He’s Frank, a hitman whose alcoholism has led to one botched job too many. Rather than fit him for cement boots, his employers (a close-knit band of Poles) send him to San Francisco to dry out. After some perfunctory scowling, Frank quickly gets with the program, embracing AA meetings and striving to master his new job at (irony alert!) a mortuary.

Frank meets Laurel (Téa Leoni), a character who is even less developed than his own, and weak sparks are ignited. The attraction between them is pretty unconvincing, but Frank decides that this woman is reason enough to take going straight seriously. For him, though, “going straight” means compensating for bad deeds; in his path through the Twelve Steps, the “making amends” part means sending Sony Store gift cards to the relatives of people he “killed badly.” (“Sorry I stabbed your dad in the eye before managing to slit his throat. Maybe you’d like an MP3 player?”)

It’s around this point we realize that the film, tongue-in-cheek from the start, thinks of itself as a full-bore comedy — aspiring more to the Grosse Pointe Blank and Analyze This mainstream than to the neo-noir niche John Dahl staked out in The Last Seduction and Red Rock West.

You Kill Me isn’t nearly funny enough to work in the former category, and doesn’t have enough bite to compete in the latter. Bill Pullman, playing a small part as a San Fran realtor, strikes just the right sleazy tone, but that spice is diluted by the blandness of other supporting players. (Dennis Farina’s cocky Irish kingpin might have helped, but he’s relegated to a subplot back in Buffalo that never builds much steam.)

As for Kingsley, on whose shoulders the story rests: He was simply too miscast here to succeed. The part needed a warmer, more relaxed performance than Kingsley is inclined to deliver.

One thinks again of John Cusack in Grosse Pointe Blank, and is reminded of recent trailers for Cusack’s War, Inc., which looks like an unofficial sequel to that film. Kingsley pops up there, as well — this time (judging from the preview) attempting an accent whose phoniness Texans are well equipped to judge.

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