*** (A must-see)

Directed by Francis Mankiewicz

Written by Wayne Grigsby and Alun Hibbert

With Kenneth Walsh, R.H. Thomson, Wayne Robson, and Maggie Huculak.

The gangster’s lot is not a happy one, on-screen anyway. Even though crime pays, the hours are long, tempers are short, cronies are treacherous, and the competition is just murder. A prudent crime lord must maneuver with the utmost precision at all times in a cruel milieu where a single misstep leads into a cell, cemetery, or full cement jacket. This ain’t no fooling around. Only a psychopathic genius equipped with extrasensory perception is likely to navigate perfectly within this risky realm. Imagine the strain; you’d think these guys would pension themselves off at first opportunity. Yet in mobster thrillers ranging from Little Caesar through the Godfather films to De Palma’s Scarface, the crumball characters, no matter how much loot they amass, never take the money and run. These “rise and fall” sagas offer audiences plenty of grisly glimpses of malevolent entrepreneurs playing for keeps who know the long-run odds but are too ambitious, megalomaniacal, or addicted to the “game” to get out when the getting’s good. The very formula for “success” in this grim game adds suspense: to “win” the player must be relentlessly ruthless, but it also requires the services of cronies of a similarly cutthroat disposition. Something’s got to give. Even gangsters need a haven in a heartless world; the Corleones had each other–though not for long. Business is, as they say, business.

In And Then You Die Canadian director Francis Mankiewicz (Good Riddance, Fond Memories) delivers a brisk and bristling treatment of gangster genre themes–loyalty versus ambition, the thin and porous membrane between criminal and legitimate brands of business, the kinship of crook and cop–in a film so stringently and cannily realist that it cannot help but satirize the gory glamour, sentimentality, and excessive stylization marring many other forays into this arena. There certainly is no better antidote immediately available for the soporific sound and the self-indulgent fury of The Untouchables. At a fraction of the latter’s budget, Mankiewicz crafts a lean and mean (originally made-for-TV) movie covering nine nasty days in the low life of a Montreal crime boss who revels every day in his work as a drug trafficker (and occasional arms smuggler) and enjoys the adrenaline rushes nearly as much as, and maybe more than, the tens of millions in profits he has reaped. The script is tautly plotted and liberally laced with raucously acerbic dialogue. While Mankiewicz yields, for better or worse, to a Miami Vice-style sound track, his mise-en-scene is more indebted to–or at least reminiscent of–Michael Mann’s admirably gritty Thief.

And Then You Die opens with several thugs heaving three bloody, body-filled bags into the sea. The thugs are bikers who happen to be, after the Mafia, the best customers of Eddie Griffin (Kenneth Walsh), Montreal drug king; they are disposing of street dealers who had woefully misjudged their ability to outfox this impromptu burial crew. Cut to Eddie and Garou (Pierre Chagnon), the biker honcho, negotiating a drug deal through smiling snarls, and it is obvious that Garou covets Eddie’s empire while not holding Eddie in especially high esteem. Eddie is fearless but not faultlessly streetwise: what can you say about a multimillionaire operator who hides his ill-gotten gains in ditches in a forest? “Guys in Miami are buying banks,” sidekick Wally moans. “We’re still feeding money to the fuckin’ chipmunks.” Wally is not exactly a class act either; he lives with a mother who keeps the TV volume at a steady ear-splitting level, and in his spare time he is a free-lance grave robber. Well, look, he may not be Tonto but he is Eddie’s faithful companion–until Detective McGrath (R.H. Thomson) waves an incriminating videotape under his nose.

Eddie is under siege on all fronts. A new Mafia chief demands more favorable prices on drug purchases. “Make me an offer,” Eddie predictably sneers, “I can’t refuse”–and refuses it. Then there’s his wife (Maggie Huculak) pestering the beleaguered guy to “go legit” now that they have hoarded a nice kitty of 50 million dollars or thereabouts. Unlike Michael Corleone’s spouse, Mrs. Griffin is unabashedly aware of and, what’s more, refreshingly without scruple about the sordid sources of their wealth; it’s not moral qualms but the occupational hazards of his trade that make her nervous. Sure enough, the next night Eddie and his son survive an expression of Mafia displeasure in the traditional form of a machine-gunning. Eddie hires the bikers to carry out a reprisal, and, in a muted parody of the Godfather baptism scene, Mankiewicz intercuts the killing of the Mafia leader with scenes from a family party where Eddie’s mother regales guests with salty tales of her own racketeering days. Way to go, granny. One suspects that when Eddie was a toddler, she gave him juice loans, not an allowance.

It’s a wonderfully illicit life again, but only momentarily. On a tip from the tormented Wally, Detective McGrath leads a drug bust that costs Eddie 30 kilos of coke plus a few handy henchmen. Like Eddie, McGrath, the slimiest and slickest cop on screen since the narc in Panic in Needle Park, is driven far more by the thrills, spills, and chills of the “game” than by anything so abstract as duty or justice. As self-appointed nemesis, McGrath artfully bends or ignores any rules or other obstacles “unfairly” posed between him and his arrogant prey. Beside “quick draw” McGrath, Dirty Harry looks like he is sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought. Anyone–like wimpy Wally–caught between the two titans is squeezed hard, and sometimes pulverized. A timid and greedy businessman, eager to triple a six-figure investment overnight, strikes a deal with Eddie. Later, when the businessman tries to wriggle out, Eddie asks him rather pointedly how large the trunk of his car is. “Ain’t living on the edge a bitch?” Eddie chortles over the trembling citizen, who has yet to meet McGrath–and the bikers. But with cops, bikers, and the Mafia crisscrossing his domain as they please, Eddie and his trusty partner Wally ransack the organization looking for the nefarious “leak.” And a crooked cop, purchased for the “price of a used Honda,” fingers the culprit, who at that very moment–talk about pathos–is imploring the biker chief, for a measly 75 grand, to kill McGrath. But the biker has his own interests to look after . . .

And Then You Die is, you’ll pardon the pun, a well-executed and deliciously offbeat bit of malice, a quirky and irreverent homage to gangster flicks, and is flawed only by its flawlessly cynical thematic thrust.