Thursday, April 14, 2011

An Irish tough guy takes on the mob

A worthy addition to a reliable genre..
Every now again, a movie takes us by surprise. That’s what happened to me with Kill the Irishman, a welcome addition to the expansive gallery of gangster movies, perhaps our grittiest and most consistently rewarding genre. In addition to having some fire in its belly, Irishman has the added benefit of being based on the true story of a bomb-riddled crime wave that swept Cleveland in the mid-1970s.

A tough Irishman named Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson) provides the focus for a drama that pits him and several cohorts against Cleveland's reigning Mafia bosses. At stake: the city’s criminal largess – and a certain, twisted sense of ethnic pride.

Danny, a rough-and-tumble kid who starred on his high school’s basketball team, begins his career working on the Cleveland waterfront. He muscles his way to the top of the longshoreman’s union. Corruption – payoffs and various other forms of larceny – afford Danny a taste of the good life. He relishes it – until the cops close in on him.

After cutting a deal to avoid prosecution, Danny pursues a less organized life of crime with director Jonathan Hensleigh and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub giving dangerous, gritty life to this tumultuous period of Cleveland’s history.

At first, I wasn’t sure about Stevenson’s performance; it seemed a little flat. An Irish-born actor who has spent most of his life in England, Stevenson keeps the histrionics to a minimum, sometimes relying on sheer physical bulk to convey Greene’s bravado and menace, but as the movie progresses, Stevenson becomes increasingly credible. His Danny is as tough as a calloused fist.

A thug who’s not afraid to be caught reading a book, Greene never shrinks from a fight, takes no crap from anyone and seems to have made a major life decision early: In a brutal world, no one was going to push him around. Wisely, Stevenson never quite settles the question of whether we should abhor Danny or admire his grit.

Hensleigh surrounds Stevenson with a large, capable cast. A beefy Val Kilmer plays a cop who grew up with Danny, and has followed his exploits. Vincent D’Onofrio portrays a Mafia guy. Passed over for a promotion, D’Onofrio’s John Nardi forms an alliance with Danny, offering proof of his undying friendship in one of the movie’s most chilling scenes.

These days, no gangster film can call itself complete unless Christopher Walken makes an appearance. Here, Walken plays Shondor Birns, a Jewish restaurateur who’s more interested in crime than cuisine. Tony Lo Bianco signs on as Jack Licavoli, head of the Italian mob in Cleveland. Paul Sorvino does cameo duty as a New York mobster.

I can’t say that Kill the Irishman breaks a lot of new ground, but it does a hell of a job digging up old soil, and it even throws in a bit of Irish romanticism for good measure. In an attempt to present Danny as something more than a mean-spirited thug, we’re given a scene that anoints him as a bona fide Celtic warrior, the noble descendant of a breed of hard-drinking, hard-fighting men who may not have known how to rule the world, but weren’t about to let it rule them.

That may be blarney, but Kill the Irishman delivers the gangster goods, earning its place among a variety of small films that pack some wallop.

One more thing: You'll see so many car-bomb explosions in Kill The Irishman that when you leave the theater, you may be tempted to take a good look under your car before you start it. Hey, you can't be too careful.

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