Perry delivers in comedy about contract killing

POOR MATTHEW Perry. As long as he has that face, as long as he keeps doing

those pratfalls, as long as they make him say, "Oh, my God," he will be Chandler Bing, the intellectual-jokester goofball from "Friends." No matter what movie he's in. No matter what part he plays. Chandler Bing.

In the "The Whole Nine Yards" Perry plays Nicholas "Oz" Oseransky, a dentist from suburban Montreal, as another variation on the theme of Bing. But that's not necessarily a bad thing - Perry-Bing is the glue that holds the movie together. Without his aw-shucks face and stumblin'-bumblin' mannerisms, the film could turn phony.

"The Whole Nine Yards" asks you to believe that an accident-prone dentist who's afraid of guns and ugly gums can hold his own against a gaggle of hit men from Chicago. It asks you to believe he can win over an ice-cold killer (Bruce Willis) while wooing the man's wife and dodge bullets while scheming brilliant schemes. There aren't too many actors who can do that and have you nodding your head, saying, "Makes sense to me," but Perry-Bing carries it off.

A tip of the cap has to go to screenwriter Mitchell Kapner, who comes up with a truly odd

scenario. It seems Jimmy "The Tulip" Tudeski, coming out of prison after a five-year stint, moves next door to Oz. Oz's wife, Sophie (Rosanna Arquette), a shrew for the ages, gets her husband to fly to Chicago in hopes of selling Tudeski out for cash to settle the couple's debts. Then she turns around and tells Tudeski, setting her husband up for the kill so she can claim the insurance money.

Language-gargling Janni Gogolak ("He is wermin!") wants to rub out Tudeski for ratting on his old gang, so he heads back to Montreal with his hit men and Oz in tow. Scared out of his wits, 0z still manages to fall for Tudeski's wife, Tudeski hears about it, Oz's wife takes off for Niagra Falls, and the plot goes boing.

It's not easy to wrench belly laughs out of contract killing, but "Nine Yards" does just that. By the time the movie's over there are half a dozen cadavers and a fair amount of belly laughs from bullets stitched across bellies and people doing the dead-man's polka. In that uniquely American way, the movie cashes in on both sex and violence when Amanda Peet, a contract-killing ingenue, jounces around naked in Tudeski's house just before guns start going off.

It helps that the actors aren't

taking any of this too seriously. Although Willis is in danger of stereotyping himself with all these soft-hearted hard-ass roles, he makes it work for him in "Nine Yards." He hunches his shoulders, talks about the pitfalls of liking the person you're going to kill, and makes you guess about his motives, beginning to end.

Arquette is a garbled beauty as Mrs. Oz, speaking the most ludicrous French this side of Jerry Lewis. Kevin Pollak gets his share of laughs as the language-mangling Gogolak, Natasha Henstridge is appropriately beautiful as Tudeski's wife, and Michael Clarke Duncan - who received an Academy nomination for his role in "The Green Mile" - has a ball with his maybe-yes, maybe-no portrayal of a Gogolak hit man.

But it's Perry who keeps this movie on the up-and-up. He throws himself into pratfalls better than anyone since Buster Keaton, hits the right note of nervousness, and his face goes with the flow at the end of the movie, when he's forced to make his eyes go soft and recite a series of goo-goo lines.

Just when you're ready to throw up your hands and say, "Absolutely not," Perry comes out of nowhere to do a triple-bounce off a lamp and a couch and Duncan's chest or crash into a

sliding-glass door as Willis and Peet look on, shaking their heads. When things start to flag, it's Bing to the rescue - bad news for Perry's future in Hollywood, good news for the audience of "The Whole Nine Yards."

Movie Review

'The Whole Nine Yards'

CAST Bruce Willis, Matthew Perry

DIRECTOR Jonathan Lynn

WRITER Mitchell Kapner


THEATERS Metreon, AMC 1000, Presidio, Stonestown, Metro Center (Colma)

EVALUATION * * 1/2 <