The regular-citizen thing isn't going too well," complains ex-con and struggling auto mechanic Victor Kelly (Christopher Walken) in an early scene of the low-key crime drama "The Opportunists." But anyone who expects Kelly to respond to his mounting frustrations by eventually blowing a gasket, as Walken's menacing characters have done in any number of films, may be disappointed.
The icy stare, the twitch in the face, the perceived wrong followed by a sudden, deadly strike -- that familiar Walken scenario never arises, and for good reason. The ghostly looking Kelly may seethe on the inside as he tries to eke out a living and make amends for his past mistakes. But he's not the sort of man to let anyone know about it. Reticence might be his defining personality trait.
He is, however, the kind of guy who's tempted to pursue a last big score, even at the risk of serving more prison time. The pressures to cave in and take that chance are accruing every day for the troubled resident of Sunnyside, Queens, a rough-around-the-edges area of New York City (and, incidentally, Walken's old neighborhood) that's been neatly captured on the screen by first-time filmmaker Myles Connell.
As demonstrated by the film's opening sequence, in which he displays the work he's done on a vintage Buick Riviera, Kelly is a passionate and talented car buff. He's also adept at bouncing checks left and right. "Wait a day and it'll be good," he routinely tells his creditors, including the nuns who threaten to throw his aged Aunt Diedre (Anne Pitoniak) out of their retirement home unless payments are made. Kelly also has to return a big check when a repair job goes awry.
Business is bad, but pride prevents Kelly from accepting a loan from his supportive girlfriend, Sally Mahon (the surprisingly capable Cyndi Lauper), an industrious bar owner. Even worse, Kelly's daughter, Miriam (rising star Vera Farmiga of Autumn in New York), who has only recently been reunited with her father, is showing her disappointment in advance. She half expects dad to fall back into his old ways. And despite his most earnest intentions, so he does.
Opportunity knocks -- literally -- in the form of Michael Lawler (Peter McDonald), a young Dubliner who shows up at the Kellys' home, introducing himself as a distant cousin and asking for a place to stay. He's a not-so-secret fan of the safecracking expertise that led his American relative down the road to an eight-year prison stint. Put up in a messy trailer home, Mike, itches for action, and soon hooks up with neighborhood lowlife Pat Duffy (Donal Logue of The Patriot and "The Tao of Steve"), a security guard who attempts to entice Kelly into a sure-fire burglary.
One overdue bill leads to another, and Kelly finally agrees to mastermind the scheme. Connell, to his credit, doesn't take the opportunity to amp up the energy of the film. Instead, we accompany the veteran thief on his day-to-day routine, as Kelly cautiously checks out the location of the proposed heist, deals with the suspicions of Sally and Vera and tries to dissuade his landlord at Vic's Garage from taking drastic action against his late-paying renter.
The film's rhythms could be seen as sluggish, but the downbeat pacing is a refreshing change from the high-impact jolts provided by most films of its genre. The story takes its time to unfold, remaining absorbing throughout.
Connell gets a lot of mileage out of a "training" sequence in which Kelly polishes up his old skills with the help of Mort Stein (an excellent Tom Noonan), a bright but exceedingly irritable associate from his old lawbreaking days. Duffy and fellow crooked security guard Jesus Del Toro (Jose Zuniga) are fascinated by the process, watching eagerly until they fall asleep on a dumpy couch.
Kelly hardly seems to relish any moment of the job at hand as he affirms his mastery of his chosen craft. But whatever fate dishes out, the beaten-down survivor is determined to accept it all with a certain quiet dignity. Credit Walken's deceptively straightforward performance with allowing us to believe every moment of his character's misfortunes and blessings.