Friday, June 8, 2012

Kill the Irishman

Biopics are an oddity for me in the film world.  On the one hand, there is something inherently fascinating with a life that is so large that it actually makes sense for it to be on the big screen.  And that's good.  On the other hand, most biopics play it loose with their pacing, typically relying on the life and death of the main character instead of imposing a dramatic arc to the story.  And that's bad.  I didn't realize that Kill the Irishman was a biopic at first --- shame on me for not reading the tagline --- I was just intrigued by a movie with a fairly big-name supporting cast.

Kill the Irishman is the story of Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson).  Danny started out as a lowly dock worker in Cleveland who happened to be a bit of a tough guy with a soft heart for his fellow poor Irish-Americans.  What should you do if you find yourself in a bit of trouble with the mob?  Interrupt Danny having sex and have him settle the dispute for you, obviously. 
Or...maybe wait fifteen minutes
Actually, that little bit doesn't play a major part in the film, but it felt so odd that I had to bring it up.  Danny strong arms (or face-slaps) his way to a union leader position on the docks, but is eventually ousted for illegal activities.  But you can't keep a good Irishman down, as he eventually works his back to power in another union, with the support of low-level mobster John Nardi (Vincent D'Onofrio). 
Mafia soldiers have to earn their neckties
Once he gets a taste of power and all the respect and happiness (and money) that brings, Danny starts his own Irish mob and acts as a low-level enforcer group.  Things get a little dicey when Danny borrows money from the New York mob to build a legitimate restaurant and the money never arrives; the courier is busted by police on drug charges.  The New York mob wants their money back, but Danny refuses to pay because he never received the money, so the title comes into play.  If you've ever seen a mobster movie before, you can guess the rest.  Hint: car bombs and gunfire play prominent roles in the third act of the film.

I haven't really seen much of Ray Stevenson's work, but he seems like a perfectly serviceable tough guy.  He appears tough, looks mean, and handles his lines capably.  Not outstanding work, but not bad.  Vincent D'Onofrio, on the other hand, took a fairly dull role and gave it some life.  If his part was written just a bit better, I would have really enjoyed his performance.  Similarly, Christopher Walken shows up as a money man and is amusing, as always; aside from speaking the line "Kill the Irishman," though, it's a pretty forgettable performance. 
"Insert movie title here"
 He's not the only one to basically tread water in his performance.  Val Kilmer does his best impression of a "before" photo for P90X as he plays a somewhat disinterested and slowly swelling police officer following Danny Greene's misdeeds.  The oddest part about Kilmer's role is that he provides occasional narration, implying that he is either supposed to know more or be more important than he actually is in this film.  Linda Cardenelli got to play Wife #1 for Greene; I like Cardenelli well enough, but this is just a cookie-cutter role that she adds nothing to. 
Biopic Wife #1, Phase 3: disenchantment and nagging, ahoy!
Vinnie Jones and Marcus Thomas round out the principal cast as Danny's somewhat nondescript underlings.  However, there are still an absolute ton of recognizable faces in this cast.  Paul Sorvino, Robert Davi, Tony Darrow, Steve Schirripa, Mike Starr and Tony Lo Bianco all play bit parts as mobsters in this film; that's not a stretch for any of them, given their collective mob movie history.  These guys provide bits of reassurance when you're watching --- maybe their performances are solid, or maybe the roles are such a comfortable fit for them --- so you don't actually mind that most of them are simply playing mobster stereotypes.  Why did so many movie mobsters decide to have bit roles in Kill the Irishman?  I don't know, but the film is better for their presence.

Kill the Irishman was directed and co-written by Jonathan Hensleigh.  The film is told in a coherent enough fashion, although you might expect a little more art if you've been spoiled by Coppola or Scorsese mob flicks.  My biggest gripe is that the story is so familiar.  I get it, this is based on a true story.  That doesn't mean that it has to be entirely predictable.  The script isn't even clever or filled with memorable characters, either; there is nothing about this story that stands out, aside from the main mobster being Irish.  Hell, I bet 40% of the script has stage directions for the actors to scowl.
Page 42, lines 7-17
I will give credit where it is due, though.  While I admit that the sheer number of explosions in this film seem ridiculous, that particular period in Cleveland crime was rife with car bombs, so "A" for historical accuracy on that count.  I also liked seeing so many familiar faces playing mobsters in this movie; none of them were spectacular, but it looked like they were having fun overacting. 
Except Kilmer, who never appears to have fun in movies

Hensleigh doesn't do a bad job with Kill the Irishman, but he does turn out a mostly forgettable film.  The movie isn't worth watching for fancy direction or great acting, and the story is pretty basic stuff.  It could have been worse, but a story about a guy who takes on the mob could be so much better than this.

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