Now, I know that for the last few weeks, we've had El Jefe de Santo doing our movie reviews, both good and bad, modern and B classics. He'll continue to be doing that, but I'm going to indulge in one for myself, for two reasons: I've been waiting for this movie for a good 6 months, and picked it up earlier tonight. There's no way I'm not jumping at the chance to see a movie with Ray Stevenson, Vinnie Jones, Val Kilmer, Vincent D'Onofrio, Paul Sorvino, and Christopher Walken all in it.
I actually started this movie with a bit of a misunderstanding of the main plot, having thought it was going to be a story of a man similar to Mark "Chopper" Read, taking on the Cosa Nostra in Cleveland as a one-man army. The movie presents a much more complex, and much more entertaining story than just a simple Punisher knockoff purporting to be a true story, though.
We're given the life and times of Danny Greene, Irish-American neighborhood kid who grows up with a quick mind, but severe distaste for structured academics, and a lifelong hatered of the Italian Americans that seem to be "invading" his home turf of Cleveland. After spending his adolescence engaging in small time dice and cards games, he grows up to become an unimportant but well-liked dockworker, joining the International Longshoremen's Association and looking out for his fellow workers. After deciding to fatten up his own take-home pay with some side jobs for the local branches of the mafia, he ends up with the presidency of the local union chapter, and is promptly sold out by the union and it's mafia connections for succumbing to committing the same extortion and threats his predecessor had.
It's at this point we see Danny decide he can do what the mafia does better, being taken under the wing of Jewish loanshark Alex "Shondor" Birns, and forming his own Irish American organized criminal unit in Cleveland, becoming a direct competitor to the Cleveland, and later New York, mafiosos in protection and extortion rackets in Cleveland.
That itself is the basic plot of the movie, and to go any further would spoil some interesting events that almost seem too insane to be real. What we can talk about is the man Ray Stevenson plays, and how he interacts with the larger than life mafia dons and Cleveland beat cops and detectives he's constantly running in to over his life. Stevenson shows us that Greene is a man that, I believe, wanted to look out for his people, the Irish that had been in the Cleveland area for a long time, and took the only routes he knew to improve the situation. He'd grown up seeing Italian made men getting fat and wealthy on the money of others, and ultimately decides that if he can't beat 'em, he might as well join 'em. And one thing I loved about that attitude is that neither the screenwriters nor Stevenson rewrote the life of Greene to be a man in constant conflict with his actions. We're actually shown a man who likes his line of work, has accepted his role in life, and puts every effort into being the best damn Irish mobster he can be, while still attempting to improve the lives of his neighbors.
We're also shown a man who appears to be disconnected with the realities of mob life in the 70s. He buys the turkeys and trimmings for the local orphanages and down on their luck families for Thanksgiving. He walks around in the open knowing full well he has a target painted squarely on his back, and doesn't care. He has delusions of being a grand Celtic warrior destined to continue the fight against his oppressors the same way his ancestors had for thousands of years. He flaunts his status in the faces of the cops and rival gang members, beating up the head of the local Hell's Angel chapter and doing interviews for the local news about his motivations and seeming immunity. And for awhile it seems to work, Greene having an immunity fueled by sheer audacity and will. And Ray Stevenson sells every minute of it, from the put-upon Union chapter president to the arrogant, jovial mobster giving kids scholarships to exclusive local private schools.
Vincent D'Onofrio, while not getting as much screentime as Stevenson, plays an outstanding John Nardi, the Italian mid-level Mafia goon who seems to buy what Danny Greene is selling, and sticks by him and his myriad criminal schemes through the years, even going up against their own former bosses at one point. And D'Onofrio, in the small time he has on screen, is able to pack in why a man like Nardi never gets to be the boss. He's self assured, but not arrogant, he's quick to follow, and over the movie, becomes increasingly nervous, never having the same required self confidence that men like Greene and Birns have.
Birns himself is another gem, played by Christopher Walken. Shondor Birns was a Jewish mobster of the old school, running everything from women to numbers, and Greene's mentor and tutor in the ways of all things criminal. He, too, is given what almost seems to be a bit part, but absolutely exudes Slimy, Old School Gangster, a man who outlived Dillinger and Capone and all the others by being smart, wily, and vicious. However, any further info you would want on the real-world Shondor needs to be found from other sources, since Kill the Irishman is primarily concerned with Danny's story, and only gives us what we need even from fascnating men like Birns.
Those are the best parts of this movie, along with some great narration from Val Kilmer, who mostly exists to produce espository dialogue behind the camera. There are some problems that I did have with the movie. As I said before, the acting is superb, from most quarters, but I did have a problem with Vinnie Jones in this film, and typing that out is still shocking to my brain to have to even contemplate. But it has to be said, if there is a weak point in this ensemble cast, it's Jones, playing Keith Ritson, former Golden Gloves contender and former Hell's Angel who becomes Greene's chief enforcer in his burgeoning crime empire. His part is kept small, because man, his American accent is atrocious. And the problem is, the man who watched Greene's back for years is reduced to a bit part because of this. I would have loved to see their interplay between each other during the darker times of Danny's criminal career, and any friction between the two. But we don't get to see that, because Vinnie Jones's American accent sounds like cockney chimney sweep's accent fornicated with a Brooklyn accent, and somehow also cross-pollinated with something Irish. I dunno, long story short, it was weird.
I was also let down by the lack of Paul Sorvino in the film until much later on, and would have preferred some more screen time out of him, if for no other reason than nobody plays pissed mafioso better than Paul Sorvino, and that is a cold fact.
Beyond the acting, I thought the set designs and costuming made for an extremely believable Cleveland of the 70s, showing the rundown but surviving parts of the city, and the editing and pace of the overall cut of this movie helped demonstrate what it would be like to live in a city at a time when people were blowing each other and themselves up with crappy homemade car bombs. One gripe with the actual script would be we didn't get to see much of how these men affected the city and country at large with their private wars beyond some short news clips from the time inserted sporadically into the film.
By and large, however, I feel like the wait was justified for a movie like this, and again I think the cast came together wonderfully. Screen time spent together showed some excellent chemistry between the leads, the movie never felt like it dragged or slowed unnecessarily, and ultimately, I was shown a part of American history that my own classes have never even hinted at before. It's a worthy addition to my growing bluray collection, and I highly recomment people give it a look at some point. And man, if there weren't a ton of corroborating evidence to support the claim of being a true story, I would have never believed the mob would have gone to the lengths it did to kill a single Irishman.