I freely admit I was kind of excited to see Kill the Irishman after seeing its trailer a while back. A story about an Irish gangster going up against Italian mafia very much appealed to me, as I’m of both Irish and Italian heritage. (I usually tend to emphasize the Italian side of my ancestry, mostly because the Italians are better cooks – really, which would you rather eat: spaghetti carbonara or corned beef and cabbage?) I could be entertained and feel conflicted at the same time, much as I do when I watch Godzilla fight King Ghidorah.
Well, perhaps I should have just watched a classic kaiju instead. The novelty of Celtic vs. Mediterranean in the criminal underworld is nearly the only novelty that Kill the Irishman has going for it, and that is not enough to save it from a lackluster plot and by-the-numbers direction.
Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson) is a dock worker in 1970s Cleveland. Working conditions aren’t great, to say the least, and the poor working conditions give Greene the opportunity to assume leadership of the longshoreman’s union through a combination of guile and physical force. Greene’s idealism, such as it is, soon gets buried under the prospect of easy money and corruption, and before long he’s busted. He soon gets out by promising to work for the local mafia interests and report on those to the Feds. For a while things are going well, until he tells Christopher Walken to fuck off (that’s NEVER a good idea) and ends up with a sizable price on his head, prompting a gang war between the Italian mob and Greene’s band of upstart Irish criminals.
Greene’s story isn’t an uninteresting one, but the movie doesn’t do it justice. It crams simply too much into the film’s running time, skipping over events at breakneck speed. Along the way, plot elements (such as Greene reporting on organized crime activity to the Feds) get dropped, while characters show up with no introduction or explanation of their importance to the story. The most egregious example is Val Kilmer’s character, a police detective who knew Greene when they were schoolkids and has inexplicable affection for Greene – aside from providing here-and-there narration, the character is irrelevant to the story.
Moreover, the film wants us to see Greene’s character as a sort of tarnished-yet-noble sort. (By the end you’ll be very sick of sad Irish music playing during Greene’s scenes.) Yet the Greene the film-makers want us to see doesn’t jibe with what we’re given via the screenplay. Greene seems to start out his journey for idealistic reasons, but it isn’t long before he’s hand-in-glove with the mafia and lining his own pockets. Similarly, the action that earns him the enmity of the mafia and puts the bounty on his head isn’t one of honor or idealism. Stevenson’s performance is good but not quite up to the task of making Greene into a modern-day Robin Hood – he’s got good physical charisma, particularly in the movie’s early scenes, but once the 1970s kick in and Greene is a big wheel in local organized crime, he loses his appeal and comes off as an asshole (the pornstache he sports in these scenes doesn’t help matters). Also not helping is director Hensleigh, who has clearly studied lots of gangster movies (in particular, Goodfellas) but hasn’t figured out how to do more than merely imitate.
Still, the movie is pleasant enough entertainment. The Cleveland setting makes a nice change from the usual New York locales, and the late 1960s-early/mid-1970s aesthetic is well done. The supporting cast is ridiculously overqualified and often underused. Walken’s role isn’t large but it is pivotal, and Vincent D’Onofrio shines as Greene’s partner in crime. Also on hand are Robert Davi as a hit man, Paul Sorvino as a mafia don, and Linda Cardinelli as Greene’s not-so-long-suffering wife.
Anchor Bay has put together a nice disc, with the chief extra being an hour-long documentary about Greene. Too bad the movie itself is a missed opportunity to do something special and different.