Kill the Irishman (Anchor Bay Films, R)

Seems composed of dialogue and scenes written and then discarded by writers working on better films.




You could make a fascinating film about Danny Greene, the Irish-American gangster who almost single-handedly brought down the Italian mob in Cleveland in the 1970s. Greene offers a fascinating study in contradictions: a natural intellectual who dropped out of high school, a street tough who adopted a vegetarian diet, an orphan who claimed to be descended from a noble race of Celtic warriors, and a sentimental man with a soft heart for the neighborhood kids but who could also administer a vicious beating or an execution without giving it a second thought.

Unfortunately we’re still waiting for that film to be made. It’s certainly not Jonathan Hensleigh’s Kill the Irishman, which takes an almost hagiographic view of Greene (not a word about his shaking down workers when he was a union boss and only the briefest mention of his career as a police informant) and suffers from the twin deficits of a charm-free leading man and a screenplay that seems composed of dialogue and scenes written and then discarded by writers working on better films.

Seriously, I can almost picture Hensleigh and co-writer Jeremy Walters fishing through the wastebaskets of Nicholas Pileggi, Martin Scorsese, Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola, and anyone who ever wrote for The Sopranos, looking for scraps of scenes and dialogue that were too expository or on-the-nose to pass muster in a first-rate film. The screenplay of Kill the Irishman uses language as a blunt instrument to deliver information to set up the next explosion, execution, or beating, but never to develop character or create a sense of progression in the story. If the film did not regularly announce the date and have a voice-over narration by Val Kilmer (who plays a cop and contemporary of Greene’s but actually figures very little in his story), we’d barely know which scenes belonged in which decade.

The cast of Kill the Irishman is loaded with familiar faces in familiar roles. Paul Sorvino, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vinnie Jones, Steven Schirripa, Tony Darrow, and Tony Lo Bianco all do a fine job playing mobsters of one stripe or another (some of them were granted the equivalent of entrance applause at the screening I attended). Christopher Walken does his usual Christopher Walken performance as the Jewish gangster Shonder Birns, but even he can’t do much with a script that has him twice explain, to someone who would clearly already be familiar with the concept, what vigorish (interest) means (other characters treat us to definitions of chutzpah and the concept of the 6-for-5 loan). Fionnula Flanagan steals a few scenes as Greene’s crusty next-door neighbor but Linda Cardellini is given little to do as his wife and Ellie O’Hara even less as his girlfriend (although she does display her assets in the most obvious sense of the word).

With such a distinguished supporting cast I’m not sure how Ray Stevenson got picked for the lead other than the fact that he is a fine physical specimen who conveys the brawling aspect of Greene’s character. Any sense of depth or complexity is completely missing, however, and there’s no attempt to make him look anything like the right age for Greene at the start of his career (Stevenson is older now than Greene was at his death). The real Greene may have had beautiful women practically stripping at the mere sight of him but it’s quite disconcerting to see them acting this way in response to Stevenson’s charm-free character.

For all that, Kill the Irishman is not a terrible movie so much as it’s a disappointing one that doesn’t work hard enough to convince you that it’s worth your entertainment dollar. Detroit is a reasonable stand-in for 1960s and 1970s Cleveland, but the production values are similar to those of a television program with unimaginative camerawork made worse by bad lighting and focus problems. But if you just want to see fighting and explosions and some fine actors playing roles similar to those you’ve seen them play before, you might find it worthwhile. Just don’t expect much more than that. | Sarah Boslaugh


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