Monday, March 14, 2011

Movie Review: Kill the Irishman

This review may contain spoilers. Readers beware.

“Kill the Irishman” is a movie that seems in danger of collapsing under the weight of genre clichés. The chronicle of Cleveland gangster Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson) is stamped with the usual mob-film hallmarks of bloody turf battles, exploding Cadillacs and debtors getting punched out to period music.

These shopworn gangster-flick themes, along with a host of recognizable faces from “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos,” cannot override what is a solidly performed and refreshingly unglamorous framing of the life of Greene, an upstart longshoreman and union rep who rose to infamous prominence in the world of organized crime during the 1970s.

Greene’s story as told by director and screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh is not as predictable as its genre chestnuts may lead viewers to believe. The filmmaker is more interested in the man than his legend, and this is where his movie succeeds. The hard-to-kill Irish thug's long-standing power struggle with the Italian mob ended in October 1977 with a car bomb outside of an office building in the Cleveland suburb of Lyndhurst, and with a few exceptions “Kill the Irishman” does not romanticize the harsh realities of a mobster’s life and violent demise.

This premise is buoyed by Stevenson’s finely layered performance. His Greene is fearless, intelligent and stubborn while also capturing the charismatic bravado that gave the real-life, self-proclaimed “Celtic warrior” an aura of invincibility in the mob underworld. Stevenson is surrounded by an able and surprisingly understated cast of veteran actors, including Christopher Walken as loan shark/nightclub owner Shondor Birns and Vincent D’Onofrio as weasely Mafioso John Nardi.

The only real missteps of “Kill the Irishman” are the moments when the fairly minimalist story meets Hollywood cliché: A scene where Greene’s wise, old-country Irish neighbor tells him, “Ye have good in ye, Danny” kills the age-old “show, don’t tell” narrative rule. Director Hensleigh drops an even bigger anvil later when a doomed Greene meets an admiring youth. Think that old Mean Joe Green Coke commercial, but more explodey.

For Clevelanders, it also may be a little disappointing that the movie was filmed in Detroit, and hence there’s no real sense of place when neighborhoods like Little Italy and Collinwood are mentioned. More damningly for those of us who give a damn, the filmmakers decided to transport the suburban community of Lyndhurst to what looks to be a downtown street.

Unnecessary attempts to humanize Greene and geographical niggles aside, “Kill the Irishman” is an unvarnished glimpse into a man who simply refused to back down. Greene was many things, and this cinematic telling does well to explore all facets of a tragically complex life.