I’m a huge supporter of independent film. The creative freedom a filmmaker experiences has limitless possibilities and can shine a light on their vision and mindset. Even using a budget that’s a third of what a normal big studio picture would get can lead to something memorable. A strong desire along with a great script and compelling characters are usually what carries these very movies. Over the years, there have been a lot of films that are overlooked because either they aren’t known, weren’t received well by critics, don’t receive a wide theatrical release, don’t star anyone recognizable, and just in general look cheaply made, turning off a lot of eyes. There is however, one film from the late 90s that I feel deserves more recognition. It had great writing, it had great characters, it had Hollywood names, but it was quickly forgotten about after its release. Filmed with a budget of only $5 million, here is Suicide Kings.
Released in 1998, this crime drama takes its name from the term that describes the King of Hearts playing card. Gambling is a recurring theme throughout the movie. It was directed by Peter O’Fallon who helmed a few films over the years but has mainly produced and directed television. You may have seen his name in the credits most recently for the now cancelled FX sitcom, Legit, starring comic, Jim Jeffries.
The film stars Christopher Walken as Charlie Barret, a seemingly reformed mob boss who is set up and kidnapped by a group of desperate, wealthy twenty-something gentlemen. The men hope to use his past gang connections to procure a large ransom for the rescue of one of the guy’s kidnapped sister. The actors who play the five men were, at the time, thought to reach the upper echelon in young Hollywood. While most did alright for themselves, none ever became major stars. Let’s take a look:
Bret, played by Jay Mohr, is a short-tempered jerk who’s racked up a huge gambling debt. He tries to stick with the plan as closely as possible and isn’t convinced Charlie has gone legit, even when the others are convinced that he is really is who he says he is. Mohr was actually a rising star in the late 90s/early 2000s with a few prominent roles in several popular movies but has since lost steam. He’s still popular and heads a know podcast but he’s nowhere near what he once was.
Avery, played by Henry Thomas, tries to stay calm about the abduction of his sister, Elise (played by Laura Harris of Fifteen and Dead Like Me fame) while harboring a secret. You may remember Thomas as young Elliott from E.T. His last major Hollywood role was in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, and hasn’t really been in anything of note since.
Max, played by Sean Patrick Flannery, is the cool, mild-mannered type who’s actually dating Elise. He might have a hidden agenda with this whole procedure, though. Flannery went on to star in the cult film, The Boondock Saints, and its sequel. He also had a recurring role in the final season of Showtime’s Dexter.
T.K., played by Jeremy Sisto, is a medical school student with a panicked girlfriend and a drug problem. He tries to take care of Barret’s health while he’s held captive and make sure he doesn’t die. When he allows Charlie to get into his head, he becomes manipulated and questions the others’ motives. T.K. actually wasn’t present during the original abduction of Charlie and seems kind of strung along for the ride reluctantly. Sisto has had a few notable roles over the years beginning with his appearance in the 1995 classic, Clueless. Most recently, he played the father on the ABC series, Suburgatory.
Ira, played by Johnny Galecki, is a dorky, worried, OCD-addled man who had no prior knowledge of Charlie’s capture and frankly doesn’t really want him held hostage. He’s most concerned about the condition of his father’s house and preventing any further damage to it. He constantly attempts to restore order to no avail and is talked into situations he wants no part of. Galecki was known for his role on the sitcom, Roseanne, as Darlene’s boyfriend, David Healy. In 2007, he began starring as Dr. Leonard Hofstadter in another successful sitcom that’s still running today. You might have heard of it: The Big Bang Theory? He wasn’t really in anything of note (excluding this) between the two shows, though.
After almost botching the crime, they get Charlie to Ira’s father’s house, where it’s revealed that his finger (sporting an elegant ring) was hacked off to let him know the boys mean business. They begin to grill him about the money and Charlie insists he no longer has ties to the mob… or does he? With his life hanging in the balance, he agrees the help and reaches his lawyer who contacts his bodyguard, Lono (portrayed by Denis Leary). Caring very much for Charlie, Lono goes on a path of terror to find him and bring him to safety. Things suddenly get confusing when Barret gets word that the whole “kidnapping” is an inside job and one of the men can’t be trusted. He then uses this information to try and forge a rift within the group.
As the film progresses, it’s obvious how poorly planned this whole mission is and Charlie easily exploits everyone’s emotions, gaining the upper hand. Meanwhile, we see flashbacks on how Elise’s disappearance came to be. Two bumbling crooks (one of whom is Brad Garrett from Everybody Loves Raymond) administered the crime and are apparently demanding a $2 million ransom. We also see where Charlie got his prized ring. Using his charm, the men eventually start warming up to him, having some drinks and playing some poker. Soon, the real truth of Elise’s abduction soon comes out, shocking everyone. The situation only gets worse when Lono finally arrives. I don’t want to spoil any twists or the masterful ending but I highly recommend you seek out this picture.
The film made just over a million dollars at the box office and critics weren’t very kind to it. While a giant failure financially, it has since gained a cult following. I’ll never forget watching Suicide Kings for the first time. It was in 2007 and I was supposed to visit a friend who was attending Stony Brook University. There was a major snowstorm that night so my plans got foiled. Left with nothing to do, I decided to give this film a try and it instantly wound up becoming one of my favorites.
For me, I love all the complexities of the story, how the different characters are introduced, and and how they’re all woven into the main arc. Additionally, I enjoy the overall dimness of the movie. The bulk of the picture takes place throughout one night so everything has feeble lighting and has an overall dark tone which adds to the film’s aura. The soundtrack is pretty damn good as well with the track “Shattered” by Remy Zero played at two key points: both involving Elise.
This was one of Walken’s most overlooked performances in my opinion as he is outstanding and unassuming in his quest to turn the boys against each other so he could escape. It’s obvious from the start how much of an advantage Walken has over the guys even while being physically restrained. His street smarts and quick-wit easily preside over the group of young punks who only think with their guts and not their brains and this is exhibited perfectly. This is exemplified with Charlie’s excellent line, “You want to play? Now you play my way.” The five young gentlemen all give tremendous showings too. Denis Leary is also excellent in his role with his brashness and stopping at nothing to get answers. I watched quite a bit of Roseanne growing up so I immediately took a liking to Johnny Galecki’s character of Ira even though he was made to look like a loser throughout the film. A role he played to perfection.
Ladies and Gents, please take the time today to check this one out.