An old-school crime wave has quietly swept through theaters. Last year saw the release of the Red Riding Trilogy, the Mesrine one-two punch and the thrilling marathon of Carlos. Each of these films tackled not just run-of-the-mill criminals but also epic and sweeping portraits of crime and the times; the particular day and age being the 1970s, which of course loosely connected these films to the classic and gritty stories of the rise of the urban gangsters. The specters of The Godfather films, Mean Streets, The French Connection and even Blaxploitation cinema loom large because what we think we know of the Mafia and organized crime comes from those images and the characters captured therein.
Yet, in the case of Kill the Irishman, the new film by writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh (following up his 2004 multi-hyphenate effort The Punisher), we discover that the story of Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson) is not just another dark journey down the back alleys behind the barrel of a gun but a true story of a war that nearly ripped apart the city of Cleveland and led to the eventual crippling of the American crime syndicate.
Greene’s tale hits the screen in big blasts, shots that leave holes, not only in bodies but also the narrative, robbing it of its mythic scope. Greene was a man of the people, proud of his hardscrabble, Irish-American stock. A tough athletic kid who went straight to work as a day laborer, Greene spent his spare time continuing his own education by reading books on any and all subjects. He obviously appreciated that his mind should be as powerful a weapon as his bulky frame.
He also developed a code of conduct, largely to help contain the rage within him that made him a leader and a man of action.
If there was a fight to face, he strode into the ring with honor and pride as his shield. He refused to hide, refused to back down, refused to remain on the canvas after a knockdown.
Greene took over a union and enjoyed the glorious excesses of the power without transforming into an oppressive tyrant. The government, through the courts, took him out, but he rose again, thanks to assistance from first loan shark Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken) and later gangster John Nardi (Vincent D’Onfrio), although he found himself at odds with Birns and his New York Mafia backers. What began with fisticuffs in the streets escalated into assassination attempts and bombs detonating all over Cleveland during the summer of 1976 with Greene fiercely and defiantly walking tall everyday, always mindful of the dangers but unable to shy away from them.
His shadow and foil is Joe Manditski (Val Kilmer), a cop from the neighborhood who grew up alongside Greene, and although he chose a different path, Manditski recognizes that Greene was a cut above. He was a modern-day folk hero and the instrument that triggered the end of real-life reign of the Mafia that continues to fascinate us.
Stevenson perfectly embodies the bulk and demeanor of this larger-than-life man. Onscreen he carries himself through every scene like a street brawler who can’t wait to mix it up, but he also manages to convey the pride and honor that drives a man like Greene, the loyalty he grants to others and that which he demands in return. He’s a heavy taking the lead, much as Greene must have been.
Unfortunately, though, the film suffers, not so much from a lack of authenticity, which it has in spades, but from the feel of being little more than just a collection of gunshots — multiple rounds fired at a moving target without drawing a sharper bead on not just Greene but also the other figures in his life. Greene marries Joan Madigan (Linda Cardellini) early on and fathers children, but little of their life together emerges. And when she leaves him, she and the children disappear forever. It is hard to reconcile how this loyal and honorable man would allow his wife and children to fade away like this. Likely they would have been another motivating factor urging him on.
And what about Manditski, who briefly appears to push the plot along and then recedes back into the perfectly drab, washed-out landscape? Why cast an actor like Kilmer and then ask him to provide a glorified cameo when he could have set off much-needed fireworks of his own. That’s what is missing and what prevents the Kill the Irishman from truly achieving the mythic status Greene, the times and the city of Cleveland so richly deserve. Grade: C-
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