It must be a hell of a good time to get together a stellar cast of character actors and play 70s mobster for a few months, and while that may not translate to a great film in the face of a soggy script and unremarkable directing, it definitely translates to a good time. Director Jonathan Hensleigh did himself a huge favor when he surrounded a very capable Ray Stevenson with people like Val Kilmer, Christopher Walken, Tony Darrow, Vinnie Jones, Paul Sorvino, and Steve Schirripa. That said, there’s also a crushing feeling of a missed opportunity that permeates Kill The Irishman, and the unmistakable feeling that you’re watching a direct-to-video film that somehow got loose and slipped into a theater while no one was watching.
Kill The Irishman tells the story of Danny Greene- an outspoken Irish mobster from the 1970s who wormed his way up through the crooked unions until he was finally busted by the cops for corruption. At that point he turned informant and used the freedom to begin a new partnership with the Italian mafia and work his way back up through the criminal underworld. Greene’s sheer tenacity and public persona earned him a huge reputation, which was only heightened when he was ultimately targeted by the mob yet managed to survive over half a dozen assassination attempts. Greene’s story is a complex one, and a little light research shows that the film actually sticks pretty close to the genuine sequence of events. Ray Stevenson practically melts into the role of Danny Green, a ruthlessly crooked gangster that manages to be a charmer almost exclusively by virtue of his monstrous balls. Stevenson fully realizes the spirit of a man who will never allow himself to be fucked with, even if the most powerful figures in the mob are out to get him. Stevenson has some great moments that pay off nicely, but they’re a part of film that ultimately feels thin, despite a real-life story that could have spawned a classic film. Greene’s life was unique and interesting, and while the explanation (as presented by the film at least) is a bit tenuous, his story can ultimately be tied to a massively-scaled crippling of the mafia that helped spell the end of the golden age.
Unfortunately, Hensleigh doesn’t quite crack Greene’s story at the script or the visual level. Choosing to go with a long-form prologue that leads to the main conflict can obviously work if the script is backed by master-craft filmmaking (as evidenced by something like The Departed), but here the script is too crammed with cliches and filmed with no visual oomph- it mostly falls flat and feels cheap. The aforementioned stellar cast all seem ready and willing to chew scenery, but there’s not much meat here to chew. So while someone like Christopher Walken or Vincent D’Onofrio are inherently fun actors to watch, in Kill The Irishman you’re left with blue balls after each of their scenes, as they never have the material with which to gain any momentum. They’re still fun to watch bounce off of each other, it’s just not enough to elevate the film above mediocrity.
There are some blatantly awful elements at work here too. Val Kilmer was clearly there to work, but the writing and editing of his narration is atrocious. We’re ostensibly hearing the story from a detective who was barely involved, and the best connection the script can manage is that he ran into Greene occasionally, and thought he was “funny” to watch. It feels like there’s half a dozen characters that would have been better choices for narrator (hell, even Greene himself), and really the best explanation is that Detective Joe Manditski is one of the few tangentially-related people that survives. What I assume is a modest budget means there are a few terrible effects moments- specifically two car explosions that feature prominently in the story. There’s a huge montage of explosions that all seem legit and look great, but when there are full scenes surrounding the cars, awful-looking CGI composite cheapens the sequences and drags the film back towards direct-to-video land. Finally, it must be noted that Vinnie Jones can’t pull off an Irish accent to save his life. He’s a delightful man and blessedly free of much dialogue, but when he opens his mouth… damn.
There’s a great movie to be made about Danny Greene, but it seems like a tough nut to crack and would require the skills of a Scorsese or a Scott to pull off. Greene’s life feels due the grand operatic mobster film treatment, but Kill The Irishman seems to have lacked the resources and the behind-the-scenes mastery to make it happen. Stevenson alone is worth the price of admission though, even if his performance deserved a better film. Actually, come to think of it, he’s good enough that he deserves to play this role a dozen episodes at a time on a premium cable network show. We’ll have to settle, and I do mean settle, for the two hours we got.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars