Saturday, April 2, 2011
How hard it was to KILL THE IRISHMAN
KILL THE IRISHMAN begins with Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson), a stubborn and fearless Cleveland mobster, barely escaping an explosion in his car. This of course mirrors the opening of Martin Scorsese's CASINO, in which Robert DeNiro also survives a car bombing. Although KILL THE IRISHMAN may be deemed by some as subpar Scorsese without the grand exuberance, it is nonetheless a thoroughly entertaining and supremely acted tale about an Irish criminal with too much foolish pride who locked horns with the Italian mafia in 1970s Cleveland.
Greene starts out as a dockworker, tough but also quite an intellect, reading books in a pub while his buddies drink and hustle women. When he becomes sick of the bullheaded union leader, he becomes the new one simply by beating up the outgoing president's bodyguard after he brought a pistol to a bare knuckle fight. Then all he has to do is kick the former union boss out of the office by way of some sharp slaps to the face.
Soon, Greene moves his way up the racketeering ladder and becomes a force to be reckoned with amongst the ruling Italian mafioso. They're led by the hard bitten Jack Licavoli (Tony LoBianco). Greene groups together his own small mob who aren't fearful of the Italians and during the power struggle that never seems to end in the world of the mob, many occupied cars explode all over Cleveland.
The film contains the many expected cliches of the mob genre, from the tense sit down meetings, to the rapid fire violence to the on screen dates that foreshadow a real life mobster's grisly demise. The female characters are the two hopeless women in Greene's life: his wife Joan (Linda Cardinelli) a frustrated housewife who takes off with the kids after throwing her hands up in the air too many times. His second lover (Laura Ramsey) is attracted to Danny's dangerous lifestyle but arrives well after Danny's in over his head in mafia reprisals. Both these roles are severely underwritten, especially Ramsey's, and are too typical. Having a female play a more interesting part in the proceedings would have elevated the material much like Sharon Stone in CASINO or Lorraine Bracco in GOODFELLAS allowed their characters more to do than just be the angry wife.
But flaws aside, what makes the film fly is the impeccable casting and performances. Stevenson, a tall, authoritative actor, makes a real impression as Danny Greene: charming, smart, cunning, ruthless but honorable even in a lawless fashion. He's considerate enough to help an old lady cross the street to get her out of the way of the car he's about to blow up. Dark humour is provided in the many scenes in which attempts on Greene's life are bungled. Ethnic tensions and resentments between the Italians and Irish also add a unique touch reminiscent of Denzel Washington's black drug lord vs. the mafia in AMERICAN GANGSTER.
A much welcomed supporting cast includes the criminally underrated Vincent D'Onofrio as the sole Italian gangster who is allied with Greene. Val Kilmer is a no-nonsense cop who has conflicted feelings about Danny, a childhood pal from the neighborhood. Mike Starr appears as a enforcer, Robert Davi as a soft spoken hitman, Vinnie Jones as a collector and the incomparable Christopher Walken who has some good scenes as a Jewish numbers runner. Walken is always a treat to see and writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh is wise enough to provide him with a great first line: "Do you like stroganoff?" Paul Sorvino is a standout in a memorable cameo as a New York crime boss.
A mafia film is only as good as it's actors and acting. KILL THE IRISHMAN treads too familiar territory but it does so with fine direction and a first rate ensemble that keep it very engaging.