Not content with scaring audiences witless as the king of the serial killer castle in Se7en, or pulling off the neat plot twist at the climax of The Usual Suspects (you haven't caught it?), Oscar-grabber Kevin Spacey puts his mouth to the megaphone for this dark, character-led drama of bungled heists and hostages.
The synopsis wanders into Palookaville and Reservoir Dogs territory, with many of the usual suspects in place. It's no surprise, then, to find our heroes are would-be robbers (Dillon, Sinise and Fichtner); that they botch the raid; or that we follow their desperate flight from the scene as, with grim inevitability, they take out some New Orleans Feds, write off the getaway car and badly injure one of their own. All this lines things up nicely for the inevitable hostage siege, as the fleeing desperados stumble into Dino's Last Chance, a sub-pavement watering hole that has no back door, and is populated only by owner Walsh, barmaid Dunaway and an ever so slightly nervy trio of customers.
Not much then to differentiate this from the flood of slick heist flicks we've been treated to ever since Mr Blonde and company turned up a few years ago. But once Albino's dot-to-dot plotting has been set up, Spacey and his screenwriter Christian Forte concentrate on the talky crux of the movie, revealing, eventually, the basis for its odd title. An albino alligator, it turns out, is the sacrificial member of the 'gator group, the reckless reptile who acts as a decoy for rival packs to smack while his ravenous pals counter-attack from the rear. Apply this principal to the bar-seige, of course, and the tension is hiked up a notch: what lengths are our protagonists willing to go in order to survive? And who will sacrifice who?
The tension builds, with the cops (led by Mantegna) arriving, and Dillon trying to control his wild bunch of pals and the hostages alike, while tending to injured Sinise. Meanwhile Dino, the determined barkeep, tightens his hold on the rifle stashed behind the bar. A fanwards flight of the brown stuff clearly isn't going to be long in coming.
It's an intriguing concept, and despite locating most of the feature in one place, Spacey builds up a considerable degree of sweaty-palmed suspense, punctuating his word-intensive script with plenty of the sort of stomach-churning violence that's become expected of indie crime features.
Unfortunately, it becomes clear about an hour in that neither Spacey nor his scriptwriter are able to transcend the overly familiar material satisfactorily: even during the turning point, when our gang of goons realise that the police aren't after them at all. Worse, Spacey - following an extremely confident and stylish opening - betrays his inexperience. The tangible and claustrophobic atmosphere that he's so carefully set up at the beginning starts to dissipate, as the movie settles down into a gloomy, theatrical feel it's unable to shake.
A shame, for Spacey - as you might expect from an actor - handles his players well. As the hard luck threesome, Dillon, Sinise and Fichtner deliver very watchable performances that suggest an underlying desperation only just held in check. Reliable indie pic stalwarts like Joe Mantegna and M Emmet Walsh lend a touch of solid support, but top honours go to Faye Dunaway, utterly superb as the proud, cocky, yet vulnerable barmaid who knows so much more than she's letting on. It's her powerful, barnstorming turn that so very nearly frees the movie from its stagey structure. Albino Alligator is a failure then, but a promising one - and don't be surprised if Spacey delivers a masterpiece next time out.
Albino Alligator starts promisingly enough - with a zingy, attempted-robbery-followed-by-police-in-hot- pursuit drama - then settles into an intriguing hostage situation at a New Orleans bar. But, with the majority of the film taking place here, a stilted, stagey feel soon develops and fast diffuses any tension and suspense the story might hold. Not a great directorial debut, but a competent one, helped no end by a bunch of superb performances - especially from Dunaway.