By Amy Nicholson
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By Ciara LaVelle
Okay, metaphor buffs: An "albino alligator" is what the other alligators in a group send out as a sacrificial lamb. Members of a second group of 'gators attack the albino, and the first group violently finishes off its competition.
Once this is explained in the movie Albino Alligator, you know it's inevitable some self-serving bloodshed will go down. But it's kind of a clunky stretch to adapt that 'gator trait for artistic metaphor, or even for a title. Given the polish of this production, you'd think the filmmakers would have managed a better central symbol.
The directorial debut of Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey, Albino Alligator stars Matt Dillon, Gary Sinise and William Fichtner as a trio of punks who bungles a robbery and, after escaping the law, cools its heels in a nicely art-directed New Orleans dive. Soon a battery of cops, led by Browning (Joe Mantegna), has surrounded the joint, sending the robbers into a grisly panic. Imagine their surprise when it turns out the cops aren't even after them.
The premise is clever enough, and although the film is essentially a one-set piece, energetic camera work keeps it from being merely a filmed play. Spacey's efforts are aided by director of photography Mark Plummer, whose colors and lighting make for a gritty mood piece. And, although the story contains some pretty brutal violence, Spacey is intelligently circumspect about portraying it--we get the idea how unpleasant this all is without him having to revel in it, as a lot of directors seem to do these days.
Alas, a gritty mood piece is pretty much all this manages to be. Screenwriter Christian Forte manages some clever twists and turns of phrase, but, ultimately, it's a matter of convenience. Check out the trio of burglars--Dova (Dillon) is the charismatic leader; Milo (Sinise), Dova's brother, is the heart and the brains of the group, who insists on avoiding violence at any cost; Law (Fichtner) is a friggin' sociopath who delights in dispensing mayhem. Why would Milo even agree to be in an alliance with someone like Law, except to establish some perfunctory character friction for the script?
The bar's other denizens are likewise archetypes. Janet (Faye Dunaway) is a blowsy, seen-it-all waitress. Jack (John Spencer) just likes to drink and bluster. Danny (Skeet Ulrich) is the type who in genre pictures generally gets called "the kid." Guy (Viggo Mortensen) is a disagreeable French Canadian. Dino (M. Emmet Walsh), the bar's owner, is an M. Emmet Walsh type. And Browning is a standard-issue glib law-enforcement type more often found in glossy entertainments than in real life, though he has the film's funniest moment, acceding impertinently to a TV interview request.
Despite the thinness of the characters, the actors put out--Dillon, for one, hasn't been this watchable in years. Albino Alligator is a breeze to sit through as it wings toward its inexorable conclusion. Unfortunately, once we get there, it's neither as chilling nor as resonant as it's supposed to be and therefore feels a bit of a cheat. Which is probably how that albino alligator feels about being used as a decoy.
Directed by Kevin Spacey; with Matt Dillon, Faye Dunaway and Gary Sinise.
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