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When Is Murder Funny? When Bruce Willis Is Doing the Killing

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Thinking of catching a movie this weekend? Right now, your choices are either big, unbending action (The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) or star-free slapstick comedies (The Hangover, Year One). Whatever happened to the idea of a little jump with the jokes, a little adrenaline under the amusement, some starpower driving the snappy comedy? Like a lemonade with a hefty shot of vodka in it, The Whole Nine Yards is a perfect summertime refresher, with light, bright laughs and a wickedly adult mean streak, and it succeeds in no small part thanks to Bruce Willis, one of the more underrated actors of his generation. 

Think about it. Of all the carefully calculated tug-of-war calibrations and balancing acts a director can face — dialogue versus visuals, romance versus sex, shock versus terror, action versus suspense — the most challenging one is murder versus mirth. The old “It’s all fun and games…” adage applies to the big screen as well: There’s just something about seeing people get killed that makes the laughs languish in the back of your throat. So why do Willis’ on-screen killing sprees leave the air ringing with laughter? It can’t all be attributed to our happy memories of Die Hard‘s gloriously wisecracking John McClane.

Part of the fun of The Whole Nine Yards is Matthew Perry, flush with the success of Friends. As a
Montreal dentist terrorized by a new neighbor (Willis) who happens to be a semi-retired hitman, Perry’s got a handy way with a freak-out, a nice sense of comedic timing, and his horrified shock at the carnage and threats all around him keeps us reminded of the life-and-death stakes involved. But without Willis, Perry would have nothing to bounce off of — and Willis is the only actor alive who could pull off his hitman’s mix of stone-cold murder and frozen-faced comedy bits. The Cool Guy and the Dork pairing may be classic, never-fail stuff, but thanks to Willis’ deft ability to balance comedy and menace, it just gets funnier when the cool guy is armed and dangerous.

Director Jonathan Lynn had a solid track record in mixing crime and comedy when he made The Whole Nine Yards; his previous credits included the funnier-than-you-remember Clue and the “disorder in the court” surprise hit My Cousin Vinny. And, just as in Clue and My Cousin Vinny, Lynn knows when to sit back and let his supporting cast carry the movie past its rough patches: Kevin Pollack’s crime boss mangles English almost as brutally as he does his enemies; Michael Clarke Duncan plays a jolly giant assassin whose wide smile is mostly to show off his sharp teeth; and Amanda Peet steals every scene she’s in as a dental assistant who longs for a life of adventure, glamour and contract murder.

There’s also a superbly smart sub-theme wherein Perry’s tired driller and Willis’ hired killer look to, and like, each other because they’ve each got something the other wants. Perry wants to break out of his suburban tedium and have a little excitement; Willis, tired of the kill-or-be-killed ways of his career, wants to get away from all the excitement and have a little suburban fun. In a great goofy-Willis moment, his character asks Perry, “Do you know what kind of soil they have in this backyard? I’ve been here two days and I’ve got little tomato plants!”

The Whole Nine Yards earns its smartest laughs in the moments where both Willis and Perry, unhappy in their lives, use each other as catalysts for what they don’t have — with awkward, disastrous and dangerous results. Plenty of comedies get laughs out of the old line about how the grass is greener on the other side; The Whole Nine Yards mines humor from the dark suggestion that now and then the grass on the other side looks greener because that’s where the bodies are buried.

For the full schedule of The Whole Nine Yards on AMC, click here.

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