Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995) — Underrated perfection


Rich’s rating: This is my favourite film of all time, ever.

Rich’s review: I want to start this review with a story; so pull up a chair, make sure you’re sitting comfortably, and I’ll begin to try to explain why this tragically overlooked film is one of the best ever made.

In the summer of 1996 here in the UK, there was a celebration of 100 years of cinema. For one day in July, every cinema would show any movie for Ł1. Me and my friends knew this was too good an offer to pass up – there were a few films in the theatres at the time we wanted to see, so en masse we went to the local cineplex, and booked ourselves a whole day of film action.

In between all the films we we’re hyped for, we ended up getting tickets to see Things to Do. I can’t even remember why; I didn’t know anything about the film. Maybe there was a hole in our schedule, but for whatever reason, after sitting through From Dusk Till Dawn, we trooped across the lobby, into the next screen, and sat down to watch Things to Do still hyped from Tarantino vampire action.

When I started watching it, I thought it was just another gangster movie, one of a slew of them that came out post Pulp Fiction to try and cash in on the gangster cool. Instead, the more I watched, the more I realised that this was a far rarer, more engrossing, and more human film than it had any right to be. Even so, it wasn’t ‘up there’, wasn’t the ‘next big thing’ in my mind until something unprecedented happened – something I’ve never witnessed before or after in all my cinema going days.

In the scene of the movie where the quote at the top of the page is taken (“I AM GODZILLA! YOU ARE JAPAN!!” for those of you to lazy to scroll back up) the entire audience burst into a spontaneous round of applause. Now, I don’t know how common this is elsewhere, but here in the staid, solid, polite, and repressed UK, a round of applause at a cinema screen is a rare bird indeed. That was how much the audience was into this film – and that’s when it became my favourite film of all time.

My, that was wordy and rambling! I’ll plunge on with the plot while I still can.

Jimmy ‘The Saint’ Tosnia (Andy Garcia) is an ex-gangster whose new, legitimate business is recording the memoirs of people with terminal conditions, so their younger generations can access them later. Sound kinda morbid? Well, it is, and you’re not the only one who thinks so, because Jimmy’s business is heading into the toilet. What makes matters even worse is that Jimmy’s capital for the business has been borrowed from notorious Denver gangster ‘The Man With The Plan’ (played to creepy perfection by Christopher Walken), a wheelchair-bound mobster.

The Man needs Jimmy to take care of a little problem regarding his son’s former girlfriend, who it seems wants to marry someone else. Holding his debt over his head, The Man brings Jimmy back into the organisation to shake down the guy she wants to marry, and Jimmy in turn brings in all his old crew from back in his gangster days to help out. On top of all this, Jimmy’s also fallen deeply in love with Ski Instructor D’agne Croft (Gabrielle Anwar), and is looking out for his old friend and streetwalker Lucinda.

Unfortunately for Jimmy, things go very, very wrong during the shakedown. Left to face the consequences of their botched work, Jimmy and his crew find themselves under contracts from The Man With The Plan for their execution. Feeling responsible for the situation, Jimmy tries his hardest to save his friends, his new love, and his business, despite his impending assassination.

What let Things To Do slip under the radar of film critics still baffles me. Maybe it was the timing; after Pulp Fiction, all gangster movies were lumped together as inferior copies. Maybe people just didn’t get it. Regardless, the subtlety of this film is amazing – how many true modern tragedies do you see in film today? I’m not talking the kind of weepy ‘Oh my, we’ve fallen in love, but I have a tragic illness style tragedies’ — I mean tragedies in a Shakespearian sense, where the bad die unhappily and the good unluckily? Despite the fact that he’s a criminal, Jimmy is the true hero of this film, loyal to his friends at any cost. He’s the kind of person I’d like to be.

The cast is similarly amazing – Andy Garcia is a long time favourite of mine, and this is my favourite performance of his. Christopher Walken is always, always good; and here, playing the scary gangster – this role could well have been custom built for him. Christopher Lloyd and Treat Williams do great jobs playing some of Jimmy’s old cronies from back in the day, and Steve Buscemi plays a wonderful and interesting hitman, and Faruzia Balk (The Craft) is fantastically endearing and irritating at the same time as Jimmy’s old streetwalker friend Lucinda.

And you want cinematic tricks? This film’s got them in spades too – moments from Jimmy’s business recorded messages play alongside the action of the film, the words of the terminal illness victims echoing the sentiments of the characters on screen. Jack Warden’s grizzled gangster spends his day sat in the local malt shop, explaining the Denver crime scene and lingo to the new boys (and the audience at the same time). It’s all so, so nice, I just want you all to understand just how great this film is.

Now the obligatory journalistic integrity paragraph; the films not really a very jolly one, as you can imagine. The gangster lingo can be irritating and confusing rather than endearing (I like it, but that’s no surprise, right?), and it’s used a lot. And that’s it. That’s the only thing I can think of which is remotely wrong with this film.

If you’ve missed it, and you want a great modern gangster tragedy, go see it. If you saw it and disregarded it, maybe it’s time for a re-appraisal. If you hated it, well, you’re entitled to your opinion, but you get no cookies at my house.



  • The pallbearers struggling with the coffin after the shakedown scene always makes me chuckle.
  • Critical Bill’s unique exercise regime.
  • I love the idea of the gangster’s meeting point being the local Malt shop
  • Not really a Didja notice, but just once, I would love to try to use Jimmy’s pick up lines


  1. I recall this article written for the weird western RPG Deadlands which had the title “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Undead”.

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