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Kevin Spacey behind the camera in Albino Alligator

Albino Alligator

Directed by Kevin Spacey.

Starring Matt Dillon, Faye Dunaway, Gary Sinise, William Fichtner, Viggo Mortensen, Skeet Ulrich, and Joe Mantegna.

Written by Christian Forte.

By Jonathan Litt

Albino Alligator is a gritty, psychological drama about a small group of criminals in a crisis situation. Sound familiar? Recent filmmakers like the Coen brothers (Miller's Crossing, Fargo) and Quentin Tarantino have milked this concept for all it's worth, churning out first-rate films that are both disturbing and compelling. Albino Alligator is not among the worst of such movies that have ever been made, but it's certainly not the best. Maybe it would have been more appropriately titled The Unusual Suspects.

The movie starts off on good footing. After a mix-up after a stakeout, three small-time burglars end up being pursued by a team of ATF agents who mistake them for international smugglers. In the ensuing car chase several ATF agents are killed by the stressed-out and confused crooks. The chase culminates in a stunning car crash, setting a disturbingly dark tone and leaving us wide-eyed about the possibilities of things to come.

Looking to regain their composure, the three men find their way into a basement-level bar that's just about to close for the night. Almost immediately the cops (who still don't know they're after the wrong guys) surround the windowless, single-entrance bar with a multitude of SWAT teams and helicopters. The crooks, with five mockingly unintimidated "hostages" still in the bar, blockade the door, unplug the telephone, and try to figure a way out of the mess they're in.

Dova (Matt Dillon) is the earnest-but-half-witted leader of the pack. Should he adhere to the morals of criminal-with-a-conscience Milo (Gary Sinese), or should he be swayed by the obligatory psychopath character (William Fichtner), whose name, ironically, is Law? At the heart of the story is the question, Can they manage to finesse the situation and escape from the police without actually killing anyone?

Unfortunately, the bulk of events that transpire in the bar are neither interesting nor original, and the few potentially interesting scenes are disappointingly wasted. Most notably, the supposed twist, which a well-seasoned viewer will figure out about 15 minutes into the movie, has much potential for juicy plot development. But when it's finally revealed, nothing more is done with it besides the painfully obvious.

And there is the scene in which someone is forced to reveal information under threat of having his fingers broken one by one, a traditional scene that has been done with style in other movies like Four Rooms and Bound but here ends with no reward to the viewer for having put up with the sickening violence of it. The same character, the psychotic Law, later indulges in a moment of highly uncharacteristic, shock-induced mercy that is left frustratingly unexplained. By the time the movie is over, you're left with the overwhelming feeling that it could have been a lot more interesting than it really was.

Additionally, there are a few poor performances that seriously detract from the credibility of this movie. Skeet Ulrich (The Craft, Scream) plays a teenager who seems to have only one facial expression. Another actor has a such a bad French-Canadian accent that people in the theater laughed every time he opened his mouth.

Albino Alligator is the effort of first-time director Kevin Spacey, who should probably be congratulated for doing his best with what is essentially a mediocre screenplay. And you might actually enjoy it if you accept it for what it is instead of concentrating on what it could have been.