There's a famous exchange in Hollywood lore about the comedy screenwriter who was told by an executive to make his second draft 15 - 20 percent funnier than the first. When the executive called later to check up on progress, the screenwriter said, "Well, the first 50 percent is only 10 percent funnier, so I reckon that if I make the next 50 percent 40 percent funnier, we'll be just about there." The executive, of course, didn't get the joke, but, that's not to say he didn't have a point.
In fact, when you find yourself watching passable pap like The Whole Nine Yards, you might start yearning for executive powers of your own. If only this wannabe comedy-thriller was 15 - 20 percent funnier, or even 15 - 20 percent more thrilling, we'd be just about there.
Black comedy is very difficult to do. When it's done right - name any Coen brothers movie - it's dark and devious and delightful. When it's done wrong, you end up with this - a hit-man comedy, where the violence hurts the laughs, and the laughs make the violence soft.
Bruce Willis plays Tulip, the ice-cool hit man, but really (after doing some moonlighting as an actor in The Sixth Sense), Bruce is back to what he has been doing since Moonlighting: playing Bruce. At one point he even wears a white vest. As for Matthew Perry, if he doesn't exactly stretch or surprise, this film at least represents the best translation of his sharp-tongued-weakling Friends persona.
After a slow start notable only for Rosanna Arquette's comedy French accent ("'Ello Rene, it iz me, Rosanna"), eventually the plot does thicken and the pace quicken, but - fatally - there is never a sense of jeopardy. Willis can glower, and his hit man buddy Michael Clarke Duncan can tower, but British director Lynn never convinces you that he can be nasty enough. Consequently, as the film meanders towards an inevitable - and morally dubious - happy ending, it's incapable of springing a single surprise.
The really frustrating thing is that there are some good jokes here. Perry does a nice line in running-into-screen-doors-slapstick, the irresistible Amanda Peet steals every scene as a hit man groupie, and even going through the motions Bruce is still martini dry. So you know this cast and director can deliver a laugh, you're willing them on, and they just don't deliver. Not often enough, anyway. 15 - 20 percent funnier, and we'd be just about there.