There certain genres that function as the cinematic version of “comfort food” for their fans. Even if a film from one of these genres has serious problems, it can still inspire affection in genre fans if it makes the appropriate moves. This is doubly true if that film has the kind of cast to inspire leniency. A great example of all these principles in action is Kill The Irishman. It’s the latest effort from screenwriter-turned-director Jonathan Hensleigh and it traffics in a lot of familar gangster movie material, borrows heavily from classics of this genre and makes some notable missteps along the way.
Kill The Irishman was inspired by a real story and focuses on the life of Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson), a longshoreman who became a union organizer and eventually segued into being a crime boss during the 1970’s in Cleveland. The storyline offers a sort of compressed, budget-conscious epic storyline in which Greene rises and falls as boss multiple times, surviving several attempts on his life as his allegiances shift to suit his circumstances. The few constants in his life include a friendship and partnership with mobster John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio) and a mentor/student relationship with racketeer Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken). As it usually happens in gangster stories, Greene’s luck eventually wears thin… but not before he achieves a sort of glorious Irish-Catholic martyrdom.
If this sounds like just about every gangster movie you’ve seen in the last few decades, rest assured that it plays that way, too. Goodfellas is the obvious stylistic model, with additional style and story cues lifted from Donnie Brasco, The Departed, The Sopranos and, in the first half, F.I.S.T. The storyline is densely packed with two movies’ worth of events, so much so that it often feel like a two-hour highlights reel taken from a bigger miniseries.
That said, it never goes deeply into the psychology of its hero, instead substituting a lot of canned macho philosophy and sentimental claptrap that dates back to the Warner Brothers gangster flicks of the 1930’s. It also crams in a nonessential framing device via Greene’s uneasy friendship with cop (Val Kilmer) that never really goes anywhere dramatically or tells us anything we don’t already see onscreen.
It doesn’t help that the film grandiose scope is hemmed in by what looks like a straight-to-video budget. Hensleigh made a smart move in getting veteran production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein to work on this film: the costumes, decor and vehicles all have a spot-on period look. However, the location work suffers from the small budget (it looks like it was all shot on three or four streets in the same neighborhood) and there are other tell-tale signs of corner cutting, namely some awful CGI effects for scenes involving explosions.
Simply put, Kill The Irishman is derivative, hokey and ragged around the edges from both story and production value standpoints – and yet it still manages to be entertaining from start to finish if you’re a dyed-in-the-wool fan of the genre. The storyline is fast and packed with action scenes, not to mention a lot of hugely entertaining macho posturing: the best bit in the latter category might be a scene in which Stevenson smacks around a highhanded, smarmy labor boss that before taking over his office. Bad CGI aisde, Hensleigh also makes a pretty confident director: his style might consist of borrowed cues but he deploys them effectively and delivers the two-fisted goods that gangster fans expect.
Better yet, Hensleigh populates his cast with a collection of actors guaranteed to endear it to genre fans. Stevenson makes an excellent lead, playing the title character with a straight face and old fashioned action star charm. He’s good enough to make you wish he could get better roles. Walken and D’Onofrio deliver ace support, with the former getting an opportunity here to provide an intriguing Jewish twist on his usual gangster mannerisms. Elsewhere, genre aficionados will enjoy getting to see well-crafted supporting turns from Robert Davi, Tony LoBianco and Sopranos vet Steven Schirripa. Hensleigh even manages to find room for an off-the-wall turn from Vinnie Jones!
Most important of all, Hensleigh totally believes in his material and all the sentimental-gangster hokum it contains. This is best summed by a scene where Greene is at a low point and takes heart when tough old Irish neighbor Grace (Fionnula Flanagan) gives him a lecture about the saints and Irish martyrdom. It’s shamelessly manipulative and utterly cornball in its substance yet so totally filled with conviction that it might win you over in spite of yourself. The same could be said for Kill The Irishman itself.