Where Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984) implement beautifully orchestrated classical music by Pino Donaggio, Wise Guys begins with Mediterranean folk music, in a film edited by Jerry Greenberg (The Untouchables, Scarface), the long-time collaborator with Brian De Palma; who could have easily stripped 15 minutes off of the film’s overstuffed 100-minute length. In the opening sequence, Harry Valentini (Danny Devito) channels Travis Bickle’s “You talkin’ to me?” from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) as he fixes himself up in the mirror. Moe Dickstein (Joe Piscopo) sits down at the breakfast table being served by his mother, as Valentini gets served equivalently, but by his wife. They live next door to each other in houses that have the same floor plan, getting ready to begin their day as errand boys for the mafia. When they dig themselves a hole of owing $250K, they escape to Atlantic City for help, and chaotic slapstick comedy ensues to great lengths. When looking at Brian De Palma’s filmography, Wise Guys is his estranged gangster comedy, lost in the midst of his most successful decade of filmmaking with the ultimately successful Scarface (1983) and The Untouchables (1987). Danny Devito and Joe Piscopo are on the run to Atlantic City like Sean Penn and Robert De Niro in Neil Jordan’s We’re No Angels – a comedy/crime film about two escape convicts on the run to Canada. Wise Guys is clearly self-aware of its marks in slapstick comedy and attempts to continuously play on those riffs.
Brian De Palma implements the literary device of foreshadowing when we meet the mafia boss Anthony Costello (Dan Hedaya) who has his cigarette lit by half a dozen goons each holding their own lighter. De Palma plays hilariously on the potential of comedy in Italian mafia stories, making Wise Guys De Palma’s Mean Streets but playing on cliched concepts. Both Valentini and Dickstein are low level assailants of Costello’s mafia, completing tasks like doing Costello’s laundry while the other goons handle serious business. Valentini gets the horrendous duty of starting the ignition on Costello’s car, parallel parked outside on the street of their restaurant/bar headquarters. As Valentini enters the driver’s side, all of the citizens along the busy city street escape with alarm, “He’s starting the car!” This is carried out cleverly since we’ve seen this cliched scene in countless films about mafias executing their enemies by placing bombs underneath vehicles. De Palma employs his signature 360-degree shot wear the crowd from the street disperses in fright because they think the car has an explosive.
Frank “The Fixer” Avacano (Lou Albano) is the big bear villain; a cartoon version of a goon who yells from the bottom of his throat while carrying six pretzels or eating a footlong sub sandwich. But all falls down for Harry and Moe when Costello assigns them the task of fixing a bet of $10K on a horserace, as Harry foolishly concocts a scheme to bet on another horse to win $60k. Of course, their plan backfires – and Costello sets up a plot for Harry and Moe to kill each other by turning against one another. The two stooges end up owing a $250,000 in debt to Costello, and they head over to Atlantic City, in possession of Frank’s credit card, splurging on hotel suites, massages and lavish meals, only to be interrupted by Bobby De Elia (Harvey Keitel), a casino owner and a former friend, who gets involved in the twist. The outrageous ending of death fakes and pseudo-suicides end up in Harry and Moe’s favor as Costello’s mafia blow themselves up in an accidental explosion after Costello’s goons light his cigarette inside Moe’s house which is filled with gas, bringing the story around, full-circle from the opening sequence.
Brian De Palma’s Wise Guys almost feels like a preliminary practice film that got him warmed up for what would come a year later, The Untouchables (1987) – a filmmaking rarity that combined the best of the best with original music composed by Ennio Morricone, an original screenplay written by David Mamet, a production by Art Linson, and directed by the one and only Brian De Palma. But the truth is, De Palma’s heart wasn’t dedicated to the making of Wise Guys, and only trekked through it because of his fondness in working with Danny Devito. “Now a movie I wish I hadn’t done was “Wise Guys.” The studio changed their minds and didn’t want to make it. They just wanted us to go away. I should have just taken my money and walked instead of dealing with a studio that didn’t want to make the movie.” De Palma admitted, in an interview with Business Insider in 2016.
Wise Guys was written by George Gallo, who penned the screenplays for Midnight Run (1988), 29th Street (1991), Trapped in Paradise (1993) and The Whole Ten Yards (2004) in addition to completing script revisions on Analyze This (1999), which were all gangster comedies involving crime and drama. Moreover, he wrote action/comedy films involving African/American lead actors like Michael Bay’s Bad Boys (1995) starring Martin Lawrence and Will Smith, in addition to Double Take (2001) with Orlando Jones and Eddie Griffin. Wise Guys is George Gallo’s first produced screenplay, and coupled with De Palma’s trademark aesthetics in direction with the occasional split diopter or 360-degree shot, it results in a crazy dark-comedy that would be perfectly paired in a double-feature with Martin Brest’s Midnight Run (1988). Wise Guys is a combination of De Palma’s visual aesthetics with MGM Studios’ wide-ranging comedic demands. Even though De Palma considers Wise Guys his estranged child, the film represents the roots of many gangster comedies to come in the ’90s and ’00s.