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By Rick Kisonak | July 10, 2007

It’s a testament to both his talent and the choices he’s made as an actor that it is virtually impossible at this point for Ben Kingsley to play against type. The guy’s done it all, from “Gandhi” to the homicidal maniac in “Sexy Beast.” You can count the performers with that kind of range working today on one hand.

Consequently it’s something of a minor movie miracle to find Kingsley on ground he hasn’t covered before but it’s one we’re fortunate to witness in the twisted new comedy from “Red Rock West” director John Dahl. The actor plays Buffalo, N.Y. button man Frank Falenczyk, an aging mobster whose problem with the bottle is getting in the way of his work. A rival gang is making a move on his outfit’s snowplowing racket (hey, this is Buffalo) and Frank has been ordered to whack its leader (Dennis Farina).

He’s lucky not to wind up whacked himself after he drinks too much and sleeps through the planned assassination. The head of the gang, his Uncle Roman (Philip Baker Hall) instead exiles Frank to San Francisco where he is expected to dry out under the watchful eye of a family friend played with pervy panache by Bill Pullman.

The script is the work of Christopher Marker and Stephen McFeely, whose recent credits include “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Their chronicle of Frank’s struggle to get sober while working part time in a funeral parlor, needless to say, showcases a different side of their gifts. The film features some of the driest dark humor you’re likely to hear all year.

Clearly, Frank is not a guy who’s cut out for AA meetings and the sort of public gutspilling they can entail. For that very reason, one of the picture’s great pleasures is watching his gradual transformation from 12 step cynic to believer. Luke Wilson does the most watchable work I’ve ever seen him do in the role of Frank’s gay sponsor. The scene in which the newcomer shares the truth about his profession with the group is worth the price of admission all by itself. Those in which he goes about the business of making amends are just pure gravy. Frank doesn’t regeret killing people-just killing certain ones badly, sloppily. His solution? Sending Sony Store gift certificates to their next of kin. “It’s a start,” he says philisophically.

The fashionably attired looker to whom he says this is a marvelously unlikely love interest. Tea Leoni costars as perhaps the most acid tongued ad sales rep in movie history. Despite the difference in their ages and kill counts, the two are tailor made for one another. She doesn’t have a sentimental bone in her body. Far from being shocked by what Kingsley’s character does for a living, she encourages him to develop his gifts to the fullest when an opportunity to make big bucks by threatening to off a city official presents itself. “You’ve got real talent,” she coos before planting a kiss on the top of his head. “I won’t let you waste it.” After he successfully concludes the day’s extortion, the couple invites Wilson over to celebrate. “You did this sober, Frank, his sponsor beams. “I’m really proud of you.”

In other hands with another cast, “You Kill Me” might easily have proven just another modest production indulging in mob violence and postmodern irony. There certainly is no shortage of those. Dahl’s latest, however, is something more than a modest production. It’s a small wonder. When was the last time you saw this much talent lent to the story of a man who discovers what it means to really live only after learning he doesn’t need any help from the hard stuff to kill?

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