‘Kill the Irishman’ Offers History as Explosions

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CHICAGO – The amalgamation of big time unions and organized crime in post-WW2 industrial America is as enlightening as any struggle for power. Cleveland, Ohio, in the 1950s thru the ‘70s was both on the waterfront and had the East Coast influence of New York City’s most notorious crime families. That history is wasted in “Kill the Irishman.”

Writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh ignores the result of the union/crime grip on Cleveland to focus on one ruffian who seemed unable to die, despite many attempts on his person. Kill the Irishman is the true life story about the rise of Danny Greene, a longshoreman who worked his way up to union organizer, only to be corrupted by its money and power. He comes off in the film as crass and uninteresting, which seems the opposite of what probably is true.

Greene is portrayed by Ray Stevenson, who plays him from early 1960s dock worker to the Irishman with a price on his head. His early worker organizing is shown as heroic, it is a crusading reporter that discovers the money skimming he’d been practicing with union dues. After enduring a couple of indictments with no jail time, he starts his career anew by renewing mobster activities.

After getting involved in waste management activities, Greene gains some crime family muscle in the form of John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken). Greene always seems to be one step ahead of disputes, and actually gains a grudging admiration from Cleveland Detective Joe Manditski (Val Kilmer). He continues a life dominated by deals (with New York City mafia ties), his unerring ability to violently dispatch his opponents and his dodging of the many attempts on his life.

Overdue Expiration: Ray Stevenson as Danny Greene in ‘Kill the Irishman’
Overdue Expiration: Ray Stevenson as Danny Greene in ‘Kill the Irishman’
Photo credit: Kim Simms for Anchor Bay Films

When war breaks out between the fissured factions of Cleveland’s organized crime community, there seems to be a hit or car bomb every week. Although Danny Greene is targeted, he manages to outlive many of his close associates. And despite the rallying cry of kill the Irishman, Greene goes down fighting to the very bitter end.

As was noted before, this is a true story of Cleveland corruption, a town virtually controlled by the criminal element. That sounds like the basis of a multi-hour History Channel presentation, rather that an 106 minute attempt to tell it through one person. There is a constant desire while watching the film to question context, as to what motivations have caused this situation and what kind of gritty urban tenor enforces it. Director Hensleigh decides blowing up another car will cover any subtlety.

Ray Stevenson gamely tries to pump life into Greene, but the script and his actions within it conspires against the performance. The background is that he’s the smartest guy in the old neighborhood, and as an adult practices self education through books and a spartan lifestyle through diet. He also seems to be a family man, until he isn’t, which is confusing. And on a dime, he turns into a vicious, unemotional killer, which isn’t really established before the first beating occurs.

The cast around him are excellent actors with high reputations, but the film doesn’t give them much to do. Vincent D’Onofrio as his sidekick John Nardi adds little juice to his mainly supporting role, and Christopher Walken is squandered by simply playing “Christopher Walken.” If this is how he plans to spend the rest of his career, it will dry up quickly. As if to remind us of better crime dramas, Steve Schirripa from “The Sopranos” is thrown in (and tossed aside) and Paul Sorvino is seemingly playing his same role from Goodfellas, if that role were put on a copy machine a thousand times.

Actually the person that comes off the best is Val Kilmer, who is also the narrator of the film. Kilmer’s current status as an actor is uncertain, but if he stays on a character role track he might be able to salvage what is left of his career. In middle age he has ballooned a bit, and this was appropriate for the world weary cop character. The part was underwritten like all the characters, but Kilmer was the most present and honest in the portrayal.

No Cop Out: Val Kilmer as Joe Manditski in ‘Kill the Irishman’
No Cop Out: Val Kilmer as Joe Manditski in ‘Kill the Irishman’
Photo credit: Kim Simms for Anchor Bay Films

It cannot be helped to think that there is a better movie lurking beneath the surface of Kill the Irishman. With the reminders of other, far superior crime movies – such as “The Godfather” and the aforementioned Goodfellas – it’s always about the story, and the strength of the storyteller. This supposedly vivid history comes off as weak.

Had the true Danny Greene not met a predictable fate as chronicled in the film, there might have been an opportunity to team him up with Javier Bardem’s killer character from “No Country for Old Men.” Two strangely drawn men, unstoppable and unkillable. Hell, such a pairing wouldn’t even have to emphasize the Irish angle.

“Kill the Irishman” continues its limited release in Chicago on March 18th. Check local listings for show times and theaters. Featuring Ray Stevenson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Christopher Walken, Steve Schirripa and Paul Sorvino. Written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh. Rated “R”

HollywoodChicago.com senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2011 Patrick McDonald, HollywoodChicago.com

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