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MOVIE REVIEW : MADCAP MOBSTERS IN ‘WISE GUYS’

One built for comfort, the other built for speed, stubby Danny DeVito and gangly limbed Joe Piscopo are a comedy team custom-made for a Mack Sennett two-reeler. An anarchic Mutt and Jeff, they’re the comic rockets that fuel “Wise Guys” (citywide), a goofy sendup of a motley gang of mobsters so dim they would probably form a firing squad by standing in a circle.

Directed by Brian De Palma with an uncharacteristic twinkle in his eye, the film offers such a likable gallery of cement-heads that we’re in no mood to carp about the movie’s creaky storyline, belabored gags or meandering chase scenes.

Buddies since childhood, Harry Valentine (DeVito) and Moe Dickstein (Piscopo) are the low men on the Newark mob totem pole. While the rest of the gang are out earning colorful nicknames, Moe is gamely testing out his boss’ new bullet-proof jacket while Harry executes an even more dangerous mission--starting the chief’s car.

When the bumbling duo botch a simple errand for Frankie the Fixer (Captain Lou Albano), the chief’s volcanic henchman, they find themselves on the lam, drawing on every stray watt of brainpower to save their skins.

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It’s nice to see De Palma, who began his career with a trio of offbeat comic gems, taking a break from the dark, increasingly malevolent mood of his recent films. (He signals this return by using an iris shot in the opening scene, a favorite device in his early films.) Without all those buckets of blood weighting him down, De Palma seems to have regained his crafty comic timing. This is especially evident in the way De Palma (and screenwriter George Gallo) portray mob life as a series of theatrical performances.

The inept hoods are always staging mock killings, impersonating rival gang members and gushing fake tears. (Harry sees his whole job as an act. When he primps before the mirror in the morning, he whirls around and points his finger at his reflection, hissing, “Are you talkin’ to me?”) De Palma also delights in spoofing the mobsters’ gambling fever, showing the gang--faces pressed against a window like street urchins--exuberantly placing bets on whether the chief’s car will explode each time Harry goes out to start it.

Much of the credit for the fun goes to the stellar acting team. It includes (in a sly casting twist) Scorsese stock player Harvey Keitel (as a mob-connected hotel owner), Ray Sharkey (in a nice comic turn as an unlucky waiter) and hefty wrestling impresario Albano as the ill-humored Frankie the Fixer. He’s such a cranky hoodlum that when he sits down for a meal of lobster tails, you get the impression he would’ve enjoyed the feast more if he’d been able to fish the lobster out of the aquarium and kill it himself.

Piscopo is also a treat as a disheveled henchman, always falling victim to his partner’s escapades. But it’s hard to top DeVito as a compulsive hustler who seems to thrive on adversity. His eyes aglow with crackpot schemes, he gets pumped up on his own adrenalin. Each time another dumb idea pops into his head, his whole body jiggles, like a cartoon teapot at full boil.

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“Wise Guys” doesn’t always sustain this merry momentum. But when it’s in high gear, it has a comic kick that comes from watching two guys act so crazy that you can’t help but fall in love with the act.


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