Kill the Irishman: Film Review

Flavorless writing and direction and a low-wattage cast turn potentially strong material into a routine crime thriller.

Writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh lacks the directorial command to pull off the gritty textures of 1970s crime cinema in the routine thriller.

NEW YORK – In the decades since The Godfather, the bar has again been set high for American organized-crime drama on big screens and small with sagas like Goodfellasand The Sopranos, among others. Tipping its hat to both those predecessors, but lacking the visual panache or incisive characterizations of either, Kill the Irishman is a pedestrian chronicle of an eventful true story.

A quick scan down the cast list might suggest a deep-dish pizza with too much ham. But the problem is the opposite. While the film is absorbing enough and doesn’t stint on explosive violence, overall it’s flat.

After notching up screenwriting credits on Die Hard With a Vengeance, Jumanji, The Saint and Armageddon, Jonathan Hensleigh made an undistinguished move into directing with The Punisher. Leaving behind comic-book gloom, he seems to be aiming here for the gritty textures of 1970s crime cinema by Sidney Lumet, William Friedkinand others. But he lacks the directorial command to pull it off.

Hensleigh and co-writer Jeremy Walters adapted their screenplay from Cleveland district police chief Rick Porrello’s book To Kill the Irishman: The War That Crippled the Mafia. It focuses on Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson), the scrappy Irish-American who muscled his way up in the ‘60s from longshoreman to racketeering union leader, then becoming an enforcer for loan shark Shondor Burns (Christopher Walken). When that went sour, he teamed with gangster John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio) to take on the city’s Italian Mafia heavyweights.

While the resulting turf war climaxed in 36 bomb blasts ripping through Cleveland during summer 1976, Greene became a Robin Hood-style folk hero, helping poor families and parishes, and even handing out free turkeys to city cops on holidays. His fame grew as he survived numerous attempted hits, leading the self-described descendant of Celtic warriors to believe in his own invulnerability.

This would be juicy enough fodder for any fact-based action thriller but Hensleigh shows little evidence of being an actor’s director, which creates a void where his characters ought to be.

A soulful thug burdened with unfortunate period-appropriate hair, Stevenson is solid but curiously uncharismatic. He shows no trace of the glint in his eye that made the actor so memorable as gladiatorial sex machine Titus Pullo in HBO’s addictive historical porn, Rome.

Aside from a few flashes of color such as Fionnula Flanagan’s tough old Irish bird, or some unexpected underplaying from D’Onofrio, there’s little to distinguish the material. The screenplay brings a plodding by-the-numbers approach to what should be a tense crescendo of events as Danny targets his enemies, then loses one trusted associate after another before a contract killer (Robert Davi) closes in on him. And Douglas Crise’s editing is more efficient than propulsive.

The screenplay misses an opportunity in not making more of Greene’s duality — a hardened criminal on one hand and a loving, community-minded family man on the other, seizing his piece of the American dream the only way he knows how.

As written, Linda Cardellini’s role as Danny’s wife is a thankless bystander. After their first meeting, they rarely exchange more than a line of dialogue until she exits the movie trailed by three kids who have had zero screen time with their father. Her replacement (Laura Ramsay) has even less to do.

Walken does his standard icy-eccentric shtick, while Val Kilmer makes a stolid presence as Danny’s half-hearted adversary on the police force. Given that the source material was written by a cop and the two characters are meant to have known each other since childhood, the failure to develop any real conflict between them is perplexing.

Shooting style, production and costume design and score all contribute to a serviceable imitation of films from the period. But the desaturated color palette sadly seems to have infected the storytelling. Even more than Mob-specific dramas of the past decade, The Wire elevated the depiction of a city’s shifting criminal hierarchies to new heights of narrative complexity. By comparison, Kill the Irishman just doesn’t cut it.

Opens: March 11 (Anchor Bay Films)
Production companies: Code Entertainment, Dundee Entertainment
Cast: Ray Stevenson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Christopher Walken, Linda Cardellini, Fionnula Flanagan, Bob Gunton, Jason Butler Harner, Robert Davi, Vinnie Jones, Tony Lo Bianco, Laura Ramsay, Steven R. Schirripa, Paul Sorvino, Mike Starr, Vinny Vella Sr.
Director: Jonathan Hensleigh
Screenwriters: Jonathan Hensleigh, Jeremy Walters
Based on the book by: Rick Porrello
Producers: Al Corley, Bart Rosenblatt, Eugene Musso, Tommy Reid
Executive producers: Jonathan Dana, Tara Reid, Peter Miller, Rick Porrello, Arthur Sarkissian
Director of photography:  Karl Walter Lindenlaub
Production designer: Patrizia von Brandenstein
Costume designer: Melissa Bruning
Music: Patrick Cassidy
Visual effects supervisor: Chris Ervin
Editor: Douglas Crise
Rated R; 106 minutes