- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 1, 2004

The most impressive aspect of “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead” is the title, which defies improvement as a pithy example of film noir fatalism. If only the movie itself demonstrated some flair and staying power with elements of dreadful apprehension and resignation, there might be something to murmur about.

On the contrary, “Sleep” unfolds with a portentous but stale and famished compulsion to fake it, stringing out a case of resurgent family criminality that grows less intriguing with every inadequate episode. This dereliction, which seems to originate in an unfinished screenplay, leaves the movie DOA, to invoke an earlier and far more conscientious film noir title.

The letdown proves more acute than it might have been. “Sleep” is a reunion project that promised something smarter. Director Mike Hodges and leading man Clive Owen were cleverly associated six years ago on “Croupier,” a sleeper’s sleeper. It looks as if they sorely miss the participating screenwriter, Paul Mayersberg, who contrived some fresh and witty things around such familiar devices as private casinos targeted for foul play and heroes who uphold a tradition of hard-boiled mystery and indomitability.

Mr. Owen seemed a sardonic discovery while embodying the unflappable croupier, also a budding man of letters.

Now he seems barely in the picture while cast as an ominous legend in his own time: Will Graham, a once-imposing London hit man who comes out of the reclusive shadows — a Nimrodian retirement as a woodsman and nightwatchman with a lumbering crew — in order to avenge his brother Davey, a young wastrel who has been peddling narcotics to the glitterati and is subjected to homosexual rape out of sheer malice.

Mr. Hodges makes an atmospherically loaded attempt to bluff his way through a bad hand. It pleases him to pretend that enigmas are excellent concealment. The movie begins with an unexplained image of someone using the oceanfront as a driving range. It concludes by leaving Will’s ex, a despondent restaurant owner played by Charlotte Rampling, in jeopardy. Evidently, she will remain that way forever. I hope I’m not haunted by this dangling, unrewarding cinematic thread on my deathbed. I’d much rather check out with memories of Ethel Merman and Donald O’Connor in the movie version of “Call Me Madam,” now happily available on DVD.

But I digress. It’s a little disconcerting that righteously deadly Will has the same name as the valiant FBI profiler of “Red Dragon.” It’s even more troublesome to observe how little charisma this avenger seems to possess, although one can help things along in a humorous vein by regarding his van as a kind of rumpled Batmobile and admiring the tuck-away limo he’s kept in safekeeping, not to mention the one essential suitcase loaded with crisp old bank notes and lethal weapons.

That would still leave generous work to be done on his hard-bitten idiom or his ability to receive news in a timely way and catch up with the plot well before the climax. When taking the measure of this character, I gather we’re supposed to settle for the sort of testimonials volunteered by underworld peers: “He’s a fierce man who’ll go the distance.”

It’s a sad thriller that can’t get untracked in 100 minutes.

*

TITLE: “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead”

RATING: R (Occasional graphic violence, profanity and morbid sexual candor)

CREDITS: Directed by Mike Hodges. Written by Trevor Preston. Cinematography by Mike Garfath.

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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