Film Review: Kill the Irishman

True-life crime drama about the rise and fall of ’70s Cleveland mobster kingpin Danny Greene proves there’s life in one of cinema’s most venerable genres. Performances, pacing, production design, etc. make for gripping entertainment well

Is it possible to refresh the indomitable mobster crime drama that has persisted since the ’30s classics and beyond to touchstones like the Godfather trilogy or more recent hits like “The Sopranos”? Ya betta believe it, resounds Jonathan Hensleigh’s Kill the Irishman, a hugely entertaining pastiche of potent narrative vignettes and some archival material tracking the mid-’70s criminal life and death of fearless Cleveland thug Danny Greene and his headline-grabbing exploits.

Word of mouth and critical support should kick in to drive discerning audiences into seats. Irishman’s assured, pounding, straightforward approach should also deliver to those easier-to-please, assuming they discover the film.

Bookended by an assassination attempt, the tale of career criminal Greene’s (Ray Stevenson) exploits begins as he finds work in the ’60s on the mob-controlled Lake Erie docks. Fed up with bad working conditions and the brutish union president, the orphaned bully Danny, the product of a tough Cleveland neighborhood, eliminates the old-school boss and pummels his way to the top union job.

As Danny gets what he wants professionally, he also conquers as a confidently laid-back ladies man and marries Joan (Linda Cardellini). But with mob infiltration of the docks exposed, he lands in prison. Back on the street after agreeing to sing to the F.B.I., he sees his finances sink and his wife take off.

Danny turns to collecting debts for powerful loan shark and restaurateur Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken), and shakes down garbage collectors, with the help of Keith Ritson (Vinnie Jones). Wanting to be his own boss, Danny teams up with gangster John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio), who proves his loyalty to Danny with a dead body packed into a car trunk.

The more Danny accrues power, the more he becomes a target of the local mafia. A fierce and bloody war ensues that has Cleveland lead detective Joe Manditski (Val Kilmer), who knew Danny as a kid from the old neighborhood, in charge.

When Danny wants to open his own club, Birns arranges for a loan from the Gambino family. But when the money is appropriated by a drug dealer and Danny is stuck with the debt, more hell breaks loose. Danny refuses to be accountable and, launching a turf war, Birns gives the order to “kill the Irishman.”

There are countless attempts on Danny’s life, but the Cleveland Teflon don (Irish style) eludes the enemy. The turf war of summer 1976 results in the detonation of 36 bombs detonated in the heart of Cleveland and puts the battle on the network-news map. (Brian Ross and Tom Brokaw were among those who reported Cleveland’s troubles.)

Having valiantly fought small neighborhood battles and found a girlfriend, Danny is determined to try cattle ranching in Texas. He brazenly travels to New York to seek a loan from New York mobster Tony Salerno (Paul Sorvino). But Salerno’s ally Frank Brancato (Vinny Vella, Sr.) hires an L.A. hit man to take care of Danny.

Kill the Irishman is highly episodic, with loads of lowlife characters killing or ducking bullets and punches. Thankfully, Kilmer’s voice-overs as lead detective help provide clarity.
Stevenson, with some studio action films to his credit (The Book of Eli and The Other Guys) and Northern Ireland/English roots, cut his teeth at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre. He’s mesmerizing as Danny and gives what could have been a familiar bum immense populist appeal (a quality the guilt-prone will find disturbing). A hulking, likeable brute with soul and charisma, his Danny bursts with pride in his Irish-American heritage as he blasts his way violently and brazenly to infamy, until the inevitable. Neither too “goombah” nor otherwise clichéd, the entire supporting cast, including Kilmer, D’Onofrio and Walken, are also a pleasure to watch.

Even DP Karl Walter Lindenlaub and production designer Patrizia Von Brandenstein’s period palette of grainy brown/orange/gold/beige/faded blue tones, the many vintage cars, and the dreary Detroit (doubling for Cleveland) locations evoke the kitschy, gritty world of a besieged ’70s city. The décor, familiar music tracks and nostalgia-invoking Irish melodies convey the story’s design-challenged Midwest working-class milieu and further sustain the illusion of this sordid world.