In the mid-’70s, Cleveland was rocked by more than 30 car bombs as competing gangsters did their best to help one another go out in a blaze of glory. Hell, that may have served as inspiration for Ian Hunter when he was writing “Cleveland Rocks,” but it also sounds like a terrific idea for a movie, especially since much of the violence surrounded Danny Greene, an Irish- American mobster who was cut from a different cloth than the traditional Italian-American families he was going after.
That’s the basis for the new film Kill the Irishman, which opens Friday, April 29, at Hillcrest Cinemas. It stars Ray Stevenson as Greene and features tough-guy vets like Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer and Vincent D’Onofrio in supporting roles. But, sadly, good ideas don’t necessarily become good movies, and for a film that’s largely about running numbers, this one sticks pretty closely to them.
The part of Greene is meaty, however, and Stevenson, an Irish-boactor who’s been knocking around for years, brings a hulking, shaggy charisma to it. What he can’t do, though, is change the film’s framework, which is
standard biopic stuff narrated by Cleveland Police Det. Joe Manditski (a puffy Kilmer), who comes from the same neighborhood as Greene but obviously took a different path. The movie traces Greene’s rise from longshoreman to union warlord, from mob enforcer to self-proclaimed Celtic warrior standing up for his share of ill-gotten gains.
Kilmer, D’Onofrio, Walken and Robert Davi all show their age, but at least they show up, and it’s comforting, in a way, to see them treading familiar ground. Though, Walken—as Shondor Birns, the man who put a contract out on Greene, bestowing the film its title—is the only one who seems interested in having fun.
Kill the Irishman has a gritty feel, reminiscent of the considerably superior mobster films that were made during the time period in which this movie is set. It feels scruffy, like Cleveland itself, and the newsreel footage from the time gets an assist for that.
But it’s a small-time story dolled up for the cameras that serves up Greene on a silver platter. Sure, you like the guy well enough, even though he’s a violent thug, but that’s not enough to overcome the film’s clichés and trite, obvious dialogue. We know Greene is smarter than your average mobster, because he constantly reads, doesn’t drink or smoke and is concerned with his cholesterol, way back before being concerned about cholesterol was a national pastime.
Even though Greene stayed one step ahead of the mob for years, the film about his life can’t stay out in front of the standard mob-movie formula. For instance, when we first meet Joan Madigan (Linda Cardellini), we can tell immediately that she’s going to bear his children before leaving him over his lifestyle. There’s the standard scene where Danny has to agonize over taking out one of his own friends, which we can see coming from a mile off. There’s no shortage of tough-guy ethnic slurs as the Irish and Italians square off. And just before the film ends, Greene has a moment with a young boy that’s so saccharine and ostensibly poignant, it’s as if he has a premonition that the credits will be rolling shortly.
It isn’t that there’s no action or drama; it’s just that it feels terrifically standard, convinced of the importance of its main character but unable to convince the audience of the same. Even Greene’s existential crisis, which occurs near the end of the film, comes out of nowhere, when a tough old Irish woman (Fionnula Flanagan) does her best to convince him that there’s good in all of us. It’s something Greene, amid the violence and car bombs, has never seemed considerably concerned about. And since he hasn’t really cared, it’s awfully tough for the audience to give a damn.