After Pulp Fiction was released in 1994 and became a pop culture phenomenon, it felt like virtually every other film which came out in the ensuing years was a carbon copy. During this time period, many young filmmakers did their best to emulate Quentin Tarantino and there was an explosion of gangster flicks featuring an eclectic mix of violence and humour, off-the-wall characters, and colourful dialogue. When the Miramax-produced neo-noir crime film, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, came out in 1995, it must have seemed like a blatant Tarantino clone to some people. However, in actuality, the script was originally penned by Scott Rosenberg in the early 1990s before Reservoir Dogs was even a thing. In fact, the title was taken directly from a 1991 Warren Zevon song, which can be heard playing over the film’s end credits. If this screenplay had been produced before Quentin Tarantino found fame, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead might have been looked upon as one of the freshest, most innovative films of the decade. But then again, if not for Tarantino’s success, Miramax may never have been compelled to green-light this production in the first place. Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead may not be an all-time classic, but it does have a cult following and a lot of really interesting material.
As you probably guessed from the title, the story takes place in Denver and the protagonist is a former gangster named Jimmy “The Saint” Tosnia (Andy Garcia). Jimmy has gone straight and now runs a business called “Afterlife Advice”, where dying people can leave videotaped messages for their loved ones. However, business is bad, so Jimmy is forced to accept a job from his former boss, a quadriplegic crime lord known only as “The Man with the Plan” (Christopher Walken). It turns out that the Man’s mentally ill son, Bernard, attempted to abduct a girl from a schoolyard because she resembled his ex-fiancee, Meg. The Man believes Bernard’s problems can be solved if he reconciles with Meg, so he hires Jimmy and his crew to rough up Meg’s current fiancée, hoping they can scare him away and send Meg crawling back to Bernard. Of course, Jimmy’s crew screws up this job in a huge way and the Man puts out a contract hit on them. Their punishment is “Buckwheats”, a.k.a. the most painful assassination possible.
“Buckwheats” is just one of the many colourful expressions which can be found in Rosenberg’s dialogue and his script is filled with very eccentric characters. Jimmy’s crew is a bizarre bunch, to say the least. They include Franchise (William Forsythe), a family man who cannot resist the urge to perform one last job; Easy Wind (Bill Nunn), who seems a bit too level-headed to be in this crew; Pieces (Christopher Lloyd), who works as a projectionist in a porno theatre and is losing pieces of his fingers to leprosy; and the psychotic, short-tempered Critical Bill (Treat Williams) who currently works in a funeral home and likes to use the corpses as a punching bag.
There are a bunch of side characters and subplots in this story, which attempts to cram an awful lot of material into two hours. Jimmy becomes romantically involved with a woman named Dagney (Gabrielle Anwar), which prevents him from leaving Denver when he has the opportunity to save his own life. Jimmy is also friends with a prostitute named Lucinda (Fairuza Balk), who is planning to turn her life around and wants Jimmy to impregnate her with his child. If that wasn’t enough, Jimmy is also friends with an old guy named Joe (Jack Warden), who functions as the story’s exposition machine. Joe spends the entire movie sitting around in a malt shop, explaining the back stories of the characters and their colourful terminology. Oh, and there’s also Mr. Shhh, the contract killer brought into Denver to assassinate Jimmy’s crew. He is played by Steve Buscemi since it was apparently a federal law for the actor to pop up in literally every other movie made during the mid-1990s.
As you have probably surmised, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead has way more plot and characters than it needs and one of the biggest complaints the film faced during its original release was that it was overwritten. This is probably a correct assessment, but it’s highly preferable for a film to try too many things rather than not try at all. Those who felt Diablo Cody’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Juno had too much slang and quirky language might be driven up the wall by Scott Rosenberg’s dialogue here, but it’s generally pretty fun to listen to. However, even though it’s a colourful and violent gangster flick, Denver is also surprisingly poignant at times. Rosenberg apparently wrote his original draft of the script in two weeks after his father passed away of cancer. It’s obvious this event inspired the plot thread about Jimmy’s “Afterlife Advice” business, as videotaped testimonials from his dying clients often pop up at random intervals throughout the movie. This is a rare gangster movie in which the characters are forced to face their own mortality. When Jimmy and his crew find out a hit has been put on them, most films would go into suspense-thriller territory, but this story is more concerned with the characters and how they react to their death sentences. One of the best scenes in the movie is when Jimmy provides Pieces with the resources to flee the country, but Pieces states he’s lived a full enough life and elects to stay behind to face his impending doom.
The Man with the Plan may be the weirdest role Christopher Walken has ever played (and THAT’s saying something!), but there is even some poignancy to his character. It’s obvious that becoming a quadriplegic has caused the Man to confront his own mortality. Since his son is the only legacy he has left, he wants to do whatever it takes to set him straight, even though Bernard seems like a pretty lost cause. While Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead does have a lot of depth, it’s still a very entertaining crime flick which has a lot of hilarious moments. The cast is uniformly terrific, with the particular standout being Treat Williams, who steals every scene he’s in as the mentally unhinged Critical Bill. The film was directed by Gary Fleder, who would go on to direct such Hollywood thrillers as Kiss the Girls, Don’t Say a Word and Runaway Jury. Fleder’s pacing is a bit uneven at times, but it’s a pretty solid effort for a debut feature film. Like Fleder, Scott Rosenberg went on to a successful career in Hollywood and wrote such prominent films as Beautiful Girls, Con Air and Gone in Sixty Seconds. However, neither man has done anything as stylish as Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead. These days, the movie definitely looks like a product of the nineties, but it still holds up pretty well. It’s not a perfect film, but I’d venture to say that if it was released in today’s Hollywood climate, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead would probably feel like a huge breath of fresh air.