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Daily Archives: March 13, 2011
“Kill the Irishman,” at first glance, looks awfully similar to mob sagas that have come before — the rise, the fall, the grisly bloodletting set to jaunty music, the period cars and polyester suits. Directed by Jonathan Hensleigh (“The Punisher“), what makes all of this different isn’t the execution, which is good-to-competent, or the cast, which is as strong as it is sprawling. The true facts here are what make the difference, as Jeremy Walters adapts Rick Porrello’s book to tell the story of Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson), an Irish-American dockworker in Cleveland who wound up waging a one-man war on organized crime in the ’70s that started on the shores of Lake Erie and rippled across the nation.
As Greene, Stevenson is a burly, strong presence, wild reddish hair and broad shoulders, striding about in denim like a civilized brute: Imagine if the ancient warrior-king Gilgamesh were shot forward in time to do ads for Wrangler and you’ll get the idea. Danny’s a canny sort — always reading, as quick with his brain as he is with his fists, discoursing at a backyard barbeque about cholesterol and how going off the gold standard will ruin America, before pausing to beat the head of the biker gang operating across the way to a bloody pulp with his bare hands. Stevenson does a good tough guy — massive but never passive, intimidating yet warm — and it serves him here as well as it did in “Rome” and “The Book of Eli.”
At first rising to the presidency of the local dockworkers union as a matter of principle, Danny’s soon embroiled in all kinds of criminal conspiracy, mobbed up with local Mafioso John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio) and loan shark Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken). For a while, it’s all high times and fat money. For a while. And then, as in every mob film, the good times go sour.
What makes the difference here is not Hensleigh’s direction or his work with the huge cast (other names in the mix include Robert Davi, Val Kilmer, Linda Cardellini, Vinnie Jones and Steven Schirripa) but, rather, the interest and intrigue intrinsic to this little-known sidenote in the grisly history of American organized crime. After Danny strikes back at Birns’ superiors, the resulting crime war saw 36 bombs explode in Cleveland in the summer of ’76. Hensleigh incorporates real news footage — not too much, and not too little — to set the scene. It’s a nice balancing act. Yes, we’ve seen all this stuff before, but we’ve never seen this version of this stuff before.
The cast around Stevenson is good, adding just the right amount of flavor to the proceedings. There are several actors here — Kilmer, D’Onofrio, Walken — where a little can go a long way, and Hensleigh wisely chooses to give us a little. (Walken, for example, has less than a dozen lines of dialogue, but he makes the most of each of them: “In this world, you need chutzpah … brass nuts … to get what you want, Danny”) Hensleigh’s budget clearly went into the recreation of the period — the clothes and cars are pretty much spot-on, and Detroit makes for a nicely run-down ’70s Cleveland. The emphasis here is on suspense and storytelling over action and adrenaline — the bombing and gun battles aren’t shot especially energetically or inventively, but they do keep things moving.
There’s a lot of blarney about the Irish warrior-poet ethos, and even some discussion of Danny’s ancestry and principles, but no matter how you dress his actions and motivations up, Danny’s a thug. At least, thanks to Hensleigh’s direction, Stevenson’s performance and Walters’ script, he’s an entertaining one. Serious crime devotees will probably know Danny Greene’s story, but those of us whose knowledge of the field comes from Scorsese films and “The Sopranos” will appreciate the real-world facts and figures in the film. “Kill the Irishman” is a modest mobster-tale success, and its bombs, beatings and bad behavior all make for a fairly diverting few hours of mayhem and larceny.