In the summer of 1976, 36 bombs went off in Cleveland. I’d heard this statistic somewhere before; it’s sort of hard not to when you’ve lived within driving distance of the city your whole life. But seeing that statistic placed in context is still pretty startling. As far as I know, Kill the Irishman is the first gangster movie set in Cleveland, and as such, it was pretty weird to watch tough guys from The Sopranos parading across the screen talking about places like Youngstown and Cuyahoga Falls. I kept thinking, “Don’t you mean the Bronx? Or something?”
But no, Danny Greene was a real-life Cleveland mobster in the 1960’s and 70’s, back when the Mafia’s presence in the city was significant. He was of Irish descent, idolizing the mother country without ever actually setting foot on its shores. He fashioned himself as something of a modern-day Robin Hood, taking from the rich and funnelling it into labor unions, before expanding into the Italians’ territory. At some point, Greene pissed off the wrong wiseguy and found a $25,000 bounty on his head, thus spurring an array of assassins to hunt him down. The Mafia’s assassination attempts and Greene’s retaliation led to those 36 bombs.
In broad strokes, this is the story that director Jonathan Hensleigh tells in his film. Hensleigh is a good director, and his movie is sturdy and reliable. The major downfall of most post-Goodfellas mob movies is their desire to be flashy–quick cuts, freeze frames, mixed-up narratives, and reams of someone’s idea of clever dialogue. There are maybe two people who can pull that kind of thing off, and their names are Scorsese and Tarantino. Since I’ve just coined this in my head as Guy Ritchie Syndrome, I am pleased to report that Jonathan Hensleigh does not fall prey to Guy Ritchie Syndrome. I’m the kind of person who pays attention to shot length, and Kill the Irishman has plenty of measured shots, savoring quick cuts only for when it really needs them (there’s a particularly good example when Greene takes revenge on the man who put the hit out on him). In short, it’s not a Guy Ritchie movie.
Every gangster movie since Goodfellas bears its influence, and Kill the Irishman shares its sense of narrative urgency. Goodfellas is a visceral ride; just strap in and let Scorsese pull you down the tracks. That approach doesn’t work quite as well for Kill the Irishman, though. There are so many allegiances and backstabs and marriages to go through in only 106 minutes that at times it doesn’t feel like there’s a whole lot of breathing room. Consequently, you never truly get to know its characters as people. By all accounts, Danny Greene was a highly charismatic individual, and while Ray Stevenson makes for a good hulk of a leading man, he doesn’t really have the personality to put that across. He’s believable as a tough, self-educated gangster, less so as a charming man of the people. The person Greene gets closest to is John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio), and we do the same. Even as part of the spontaneity-murdering Law & Order franchise, D’Onofrio is always an interesting actor. Here, he sounds like a New Yorker on helium, which certainly gets your attention.
Unfortunately, the women in Greene’s life are almost non-existent. Greene’s first wife is played by the great Linda Cardellini, but she has nothing to do. She’s the typical Mob Wife: a good little girl lured onto the wrong side of the tracks, benefiting from the mobster lifestyle but seemingly oblivious to it. Once she finds out the truth and leaves him, we never see her again, and his second wife is even more of a blank slate. Played by Laura Ramsey, she’s a self-reliant girl who grew up on the streets but almost immediately caves into Greene’s way of life. That’s about all we get to know of her. The only truly significant woman in the movie is his wise Irish neighbor, Grace O’Keefe (Fionnula Flanagan, who bedeviled both viewers and characters as the mysterious Eloise Hawking on Lost). Even then, she gets maybe one philosophical monologue, and she’s gone.
The rest of the cast, though, mostly gets its due. At least three Sopranos actors pop up, the most notable being Steve Schirripa as one of Greene’s early business partners. Christopher Walken gets his best part in years as Shondor Birns, a Jewish mobster who was once, long before the events of this movie, named Public Enemy No. 1 in Cleveland. And though he’s underused, Val Kilmer is, as always, a welcome presence, narrating the movie as Detective Joe Manditski. In some ways, Manditski’s life parallels Greene’s, and there’s a nice scene near the end where they talk and share a beer. The fact that Greene’s a mobster, and that Manditski’s a cop, is forgotten, and they just reflect on life as two guys who both grew up on Cleveland’s East Side.
Sprinkled throughout the movie are bits of actual 1970’s news footage. It’s here when the story is most compelling, when we remember that all of this actually happened, and that most of these people actually lived and died. That there was a time when Cleveland was known as Bomb City, U.S.A. At the end of the movie, we see the real Danny Greene talking to a reporter, but only from behind as he walks away. Which is pretty apt; he’s an interesting figure, one that ultimately eludes the movie’s grasp, but as he walks away, he still makes an impact.