Efficiency, fun help film go the distance

Movie: The Whole Nine Yards

Our Rating: 3.50

Somewhere in the last decade, the contract killer became a dependable enough icon that Hollywood could make movies poking fun at him. He's heartless, tough, relentless and possessed of a "code" of conduct that allows murder but disallows certain other things (cruelty to puppies, disrespect for Mom, harsh language, etc.) that define the personality of the hit man du jour.

"The Whole Nine Yards," an uneven but occasionally amusing comedy-drama, pokes that sort of fun. Some of it works.

The plot, from first-time screenwriter Mitchell Kapner, places the hit man next door to an unhappily married Montreal dentist. The dentist becomes involved in the hit man's gangster affairs and, eventually, becomes involved with his wife.

The hit man (Bruce Willis) and the dentist's assistant (Amanda Peet) get the best roles. The hit-man character allows Willis to lace up his tough-guy pose with that sardonic sneer that he and audiences have adored since Moonlighting. And then there's the best part of the movie: Peet. As the hygienist with a secret, she practically steals the show.

This has happened before in a Jonathan Lynn film. The director "discovered" plucky Marisa Tomei in one of his earlier comedies, "My Cousin Vinny," but she's rarely done as good work since. Peet seems likely to fare better -- she's already the star of the Jack and Jill sitcom on television. In the future, her wide-smiling charm and natural abandon should make her an ideal romantic heroine in larger roles.

Besides directing women well, Lynn is also a good organizer and timing coach for Matthew Perry, of TV's "Friends," who plays the dentist. The doctor is a re-sourceful schmo who pratfalls when he's not delivering dialogue designed to propel the increasingly complicated storyline. Perry, already a seasoned pro from his long-running series, gets more out of his goofy "Who, me?" look here than anywhere else.

Michael Clarke Duncan, the big guy from "The Green Mile," gets to stretch his acting muscles as a mobile Chicago hit man. Duncan's a type actor, but a type with flair, who works in comedy as well as a menace.

Natasha Henstridge plays the cool blonde, very coolly. And while seldom-seen Rosanna Arquette looks sexy as the dentist's nefarious wife, hers is a thankless role made worse by her irrelevant French accent.

In the end Lynn manages to corral all of his characters -- weak and strong -- and collect the loose ends so there's nothing sloppy about his happy ending. Even if "The Whole Nine Yards" lacks enough soul and heart to radiate warmth, director Lynn does deliver an efficient and professional job that's likely to strike senses of humor right on cue.


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