The Opportunists
review by KJ Doughton, 25 August 2000

The Opportunists reminds us that not all people are well-manicured, young, upwardly-mobile professionals with Bay Watch-perfect bodies, gleaming Ferraris in the garage, and a seemingly endless line of credit. If you were an extraterrestrial attempting to study human behavior based on films like Mission: Impossible 2, you’d marvel at these perfect beings with perfect lives and seeming immunity from death and debt. In a refreshing twist, The Opportunists gives us Victor Kelly (Christopher Walken), a deadbeat mechanic whose life in Queens, New York is a cluster of greasy-fingered engine repairs, tinny radios, and outdated furniture. Like everything he surrounds himself with, Victor is a real antique.

When the movie opens, we’re given a glimpse of Victor prodding around under the hood of a tan Riviera with an oily crescent wrench. There are no computers, cell phones, or DVD players filling space in Victor’s dreary home, but there is a pair of orange curtains and some flower decals adorning a grungy trailer that this one-time safecracker stashes outside his garage. The kitschy, dated look of nearly everything in The Opportunists comes across as a bit of a shock in this age of over produced movies that almost always look good, even if they’re bad in every other respect.

Written and directed by newcomer Myles Connell, The Opportunists makes it clear from the beginning that Victor is struggling with a checkered past and a criminal record. The consequences of this failed history are everywhere. His twentysomething daughter, Miriam (Vera Farmiga), is attempting to rebuild some trust and lives with Victor, after his part in a burglary resulted in eight years behind bars. But she’s easy on her old man. "The last time you got caught," she says, reminding Victor that he’s not a villain, "you gave the money back, and got a reduced sentence."

Then there’s Pat, a friend from his criminal past, eager to talk Victor out of his reformed ways for "an easy job", while a landlord lurks about demanding rent money. "Tack on an extra fifteen dollars for the bank charge," he sulks after Victor’s check bounces. Meanwhile, Victor’s Aunt Diedre will be asked to leave her assisted living residence unless he can bring her account up to date. While bartending girlfriend Sally (Cyndi Lauper) is eager to help him out with some extra savings, her man is too proud to accept help. Victor admits that "being a regular citizen isn’t working out so well," and Sally smells trouble.

Trouble does arrive in the form of a young Irishman named Michael (Peter McDonald), who claims to be a "cousin." Fresh off of a plane from Dublin, Michael’s presence is welcomed by bored Miriam, even as Victor slams the door in his face. "I’m Uncle Franco’s son," Michael insists. "You’re mistaken," fires back Victor. Why would Michael fly across the ocean to shack up with this disinterested relative? Because, it seems, Victor’s reputation as a safecracker has been inflated overseas, where he’s a legend of sorts. Michael has envisioned a dapper gangster and a chance at some lucrative action, but when he sees Victor as a washed-up, broken man struggling to go straight, he’s disappointed. Even so, he’s attracted to Miriam’s spunky enthusiasm, and at her insistence, Victor eventually houses Michael in a dilapidated old trailer apart from the Kelly home.

After The Opportunists sorts out this web of relationships, it sets the scene for Victor’s inevitable return to crime. And indeed, the movie culminates in a low-key heist involving crooked security guards, a seedy money transport company, and an unexpected revelation concerning Michael. Surprisingly, the film’s finale isn’t the despairing downer it seems to be arriving at. There’s a redemptive turnaround that, like everything else in The Opportunists, comes across as casual and unforced.

It’s difficult not to appreciate this movie’s uniquely laid-back approach to a sensational subject, with Victor’s daily routine painted as anything but the frantic and unexpected labyrinth inhabited by Quentin Tarantino’s underworld characters. But the film pays a price. By following these unexceptional people through their unexceptional steps and catching the oftentimes drab sameness of real life, The Opportunists also comes across as a bit boring. Maybe I’m just another victim of today’s MTV quick-cutting and television commercial editing, hungry for the rush of Michael Mann or John Woo. Or maybe I’m pigeonholing the fine, complex Walken as an actor who should specialize only in freaky character roles, like the gallery of ghouls he portrayed in True Romance, Pulp Fiction, Sleepy Hollow, and Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead.

Indeed, Victor Kelly might be Walken’s most understated role to date. With his friendly but defeated approach to a life of downsized dreams, Kelly is a nice contrast to the more gullible, optimistic Michael (convincingly played by Peter McDonald with a wide-eyed, childlike enthusiasm). Tom Noonan also registers strongly as a seen-it-all crook that provides Victor with the various tools of his safecracking trade as needed.

Does The Opportunists work? As a relaxed character study, I suppose it does. But in acting as a lens with which to view Victor Kelly’s somewhat lazy routine, the movie lacks cinematic juice. Following Victor around this barren landscape is like watching one of TV’s Survivor castaways without the palm trees, exotic beaches, rats, and elusive million dollar prize. It feels real, but where’s the hook?

Written and
Directed by:

Myles Connell

Christopher Walken
Peter McDonald
Cyndi Lauper
Vera Farmiga
Tom Noonan




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