There was nothing about Down by law that particularly excited me. I knew nothing about the director ( Jim Jarmusch ), except that I could not pronounce his last name. I knew nothing about it's lead actors (John Lurie, Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni). And Except for the choice of black and white colors there was no reason for me get this. I am a sucker for black and white movies. Especially modern black and white movies. The only reason I picked up Down by law then was because it was a modern black and white movie. I am glad I did. It introduced me to the wonderful movies of Jim which otherwise I would have never bothered to see.
The movie consists of three acts, there are no acts per se but it is quite clear that the movie has three distinct phases.
The first act introduces the characters. Jack a pimp played by John Lurie, Zack a Dj played by Tom Waits and Roberto a foreigner who loves to play poker played by Benigni. For unknown reasons the three men are put in jail for crimes they did not commit.
The second act is about the time they spend in jail. The characters get to know each other better and eventually break out of the prison.
The third act is about them fleeing from the cops after which they all go their separate ways.
Taken individually these characters are common. Jack is like any other pimp looking to expand his business. Zack is like any other alcoholic who does not get along with his girlfriend and Roberto is like any other foreigner who is out of place. What's extraordinary is how these characters come together and interact with each other.
In act two, for instance, Zack is the first one to be thrown into prison. He is all alone in there and does not do much expect for counting days. When Jack joins him he tries to make conversation with him. But he finds Jack to be condescending, judgmental and "nothing like him".
Jack on the other hand is circumspect. He has been betrayed by an acquaintance so he is distant. Though he is burdened by being in prison so he wants to talk to keep the atmosphere light.
Zack is quick to take offence and the two often break into a fight. Though after a few sullen expressions they both go back to their cheery self.
During the course of the movie Jack comes to know that Zack is a popular DJ. At first he refuses to believe him but when Zack does a voice over he is convinced.
Things get crazier when Roberto is thrown into the same prison with them. At first both Zack and Jack find him annoying. He keeps messing up their names.
"I am Zack with a z".
"I am Jack with a J".
They find Roberto to be dim witted. Of course Roberto on his part does nothing to prove otherwise. He has little command over English language. He can hardly put two words together to make a sentence and yet keeps a diary to throw around phrases at any opportunity that he can get. His choice is almost always wrong and it makes for a belly aching laugh.
"I ham a good egg"
"If looks could kill, I am a-dead now."
"I scream, you scream, we all scream, for ice cream" are classics.
But before long he grows on them and like myself they laugh at his odd choice of phrases and they laugh with him while playing poker and sometimes they even laugh on him when he fails to understand what they are talking about. He proves his worth when he finds out a way escape the prison.
Once out of the prison they have to figure out a way to get as far away from the jail as possible. While fleeing they come across a pool of water and the only way to cross it is by swimming. Roberto however does not know how to swim. At first both Zack and jack teasingly leave him. Roberto becomes quite distressed. But Zack comes back and they change their route.
After a few days on their own the food becomes a scarcity. Roberto rescues them once more by hunting a rabbit and cooking it "just like his mother".
Through sheer luck they come across a house and as it turns out the owner is an Italian lady. Roberto falls in love with her and decides to live with her happily ever after.
As for Jack and Zack they travel for a few miles together when they come across a diverging road where they part ways.