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Unpopular Mechanic: Christopher Walken plays a down-on-his-luck ex-con who tries unsuccessfully to run a garage in Brooklyn.

Hard Knocks of Opportunity

A struggling ex-con can't win for losing in 'The Opportunists'

By Richard von Busack

IT LOOKS LIKE a '70s-style movie; it's promoted as a '70s-style movie ... its hero is a loser, middle-aged, in debt and inept, just like the troubled heroes of 1970s films. But The Opportunists doesn't really deliver the hard-edged qualities of the bad-news '70s movie. It's a hedged bet. And the happy ending, out of sync with the rest of the movie, seems especially soft-edged. Reviewing a film like The Opportunists, I'm torn between congratulating it for the integrity it has and criticizing it for the integrity it lacks.

Let's start with praise, then. Christopher Walken, after years of playing scumbags, psychos and devils, is the weary Victor Kelly, an ex-con who runs a garage in a neighborhood in Brooklyn. He's hopeless as a mechanic, and he's in a large amount of debt, mostly to his landlord.

His girlfriend, tavern keeper Sally Mahon (Cyndi Lauper), offers up her nest egg to help him, but Victor's too proud to take it. One afternoon, Kelly's Irish cousin Michael (Peter McDonald) turns up on the front porch, looking for a place to stay. Kelly, who's never heard of the kid, curtly turns the boy out, but his daughter, Miriam (Vera Farmiga), intercedes.

Quickly, Michael gets involved with a pair of would-be criminals (Jose Zuniga and Donal Logue, lately the plump lover boy in The Tao of Steve.) The three men lure Victor Kelly into a safecracking job on an armored car company's headquarters. Intuiting that Victor is back in the underworld, his girlfriend Sally gives him an ultimatum as the time for the heist draws near.

Despite wearing a strange wig like the coiffure of Kid from Kid 'n' Play, Walken is rock-solid as Victor. When he sits, holding a huge wrench as a club, you can see that the appetite for violence has been beaten out of him, and his weariness is probably deeper than it looks. Tom Noonan, who played the maniac Dolarhyde in Manhunter, is excellent in a small part as a safecracker, with a snapping temper worthy of a nerve-racking trade.

The first sighting of Cyndi Lauper is a pleasure; her music was so much a part of so many people's youths that you get a brief taste of youth just by seeing her. Lauper hasn't been on-screen much since the bad romantic comedy Vibes in 1988. Then, she seemed to have potential as a screwball comedian, and the potential still exists, though it hasn't been developed. Here, she has that unfortunate woman-who-waits role. She can't do much to a part like that--she's no threat, no match for Walken's Victor.

First-time director Myles Connell, who both wrote and directed The Opportunists, is Irish. Maybe that's why the kid McDonald, who looks like the young baby-faced Timothy Bottoms in The Last Picture Show, isn't a typical movie broth of a lad. If you were walking in a Dublin neighborhood where you heard accents like McDonald's, you'd become aware of your surroundings quick and keep an eye on your wallet.

Speaking of neighborhoods, Connell has made the most Brooklyn-looking movie I've seen in years. The grime and forlornness of the borough are everywhere in the unwashed walls, the cramped houses built in the shape of barns but looking more like red-barn lunchboxes than the real thing. When the film loses its integrity, the visuals remind you of the real desperation that inspires a crime story. Unfortunately, The Opportunists bounces its reality check.

There are just one too many references to what a nice guy Victor is. Why? In a movie like this, we don't need to identify with his niceness, when we can identify with his oppression. He has an old aunt for whom he needs to raise the money; his daughter (variously described as living with him and not living with him, which is either a hole in the script or a difference in their opinions) also needs to be provided for. The armored-car company is crooked and run by a homely person--two justifications for ripping the company off, and we're also told it's Robin Hood justice to steal from them.

The Opportunists, in short, loads the reasons why Victor needs a victory, while the seriousness and bleakness of the Sunnyside neighborhood seems to demand a noble failure instead. Of course, if this movie fails, it will be because it's too grim, not because it's too sweet. Though, to those who remember the cinematic era The Opportunists is based upon, it seems that that decade's pessimism can never be recalled, especially in money-drunk, optimistic times.

The Opportunists (R; 89 min.) written and directed by Myles Connell, photographed by Teo Maniaci, and starring Christopher Walken and Cyndi Lauper, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

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From the August 24-30. 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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