Kill the Irishman

Set your sights on mediocrity.
Jonathan Hensleigh
Ray Stevenson, Vincent D'Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Christopher Walken
The Setup: 
True-ish story of an Irish gangster in 70s Cleveland, Ohio.

Did you know that Cleveland, Ohio had a huge gangster scene in the 70s? Neither did I. But apparently it did, and this one guy, Danny Greene, ended up running rings around the Mafia and surviving several efforts to kill him. But sadly, this is a direct-to-video movie that, great cast notwithstanding, makes you understand why it went direct to video.

If you put a bunch of "true story" gangster films together I suppose one could develop a good sense of what separates the good from the bad, what works and what doesn't. Similarly, if you put a bunch of direct-to-video features together, you could see what separates the ones that are brilliant but maybe just a bit too off-kilter for mainstream release, like High Life, and this. What I'm trying to say is that this is an example of one that doesn't quite make it. It has a true story and a big, outsized hero, and managed to gather a good cast, and lots of action... and yet by the time it's over, one may not be able to pinpoint precisely what's wrong with it, but one knows for certain that whatever it takes to be a successful feature film, this one doesn't have it.

I had seen a trailer for this and been interested because I like gangster stories, especially when the gangster constantly outsmarts more powerful guys, and I must admit that the fact that the lead here is handsome and has an awesome mustache did figure into my decision. We open with the now-common device of beginning at the height of the action, then flashing back until we once again arrive at the starting point. We open with a car bomb, and a short perusal of IMDb points out that this movie has perhaps more car bombs than any other film, which alerted me to start counting them. There are ten. Then we go back and see Danny Greene growing up in Cleveland, Ohio. He apparently never went to school, and never finished high school, but always read a great deal while on break from his manual labor jobs. Apparently the town of Cleveland is run by the mafia, and Danny's union boss is solidly in their employ. Danny gets a friend off of his gambling charges by showing thieves into the freight containers he works with. Then the smug, smarmy union boss sends someone to collect payment and kill Danny, but Danny beats the guy up and, in the most satisfying scene in the entire film, repeatedly slaps the formerly tough union boss like a pussy until he runs off whimpering. Then Danny becomes the union boss. But it's not a new day of justice and equality, because Danny is just as corrupt as any of the other criminals, it's just that now HE'S in charge.

In here we have also seen Danny meet a woman at a bar, and before you know it, they're married and have kids. We find that police detective Val Kilmer as Joe knew Danny from boyhood, but now they're on opposite sides of the law! He beats up the biker gang on his street and takes control of his neighborhood. He goes to local mafia guy Tony Lo Bianco as Jack and offers to force the local garbagemen into a union, which means putting muscle on his friend. When Danny finds out the friend he got off from gambling is once again gambling, he devises a solution where he blows up the friend and in doing so, scares his friend the garbageman. The friend comes to kill him, and he shoots the friend in the head, for which he is sent to prison. His wife leaves him.

When he gets out, he encounters the old Irish woman across the way, who says to never admit that he's not a good person, and gives him a crucifix to wear. Danny then starts giving money to orphanages and such, cultivating a sort of local hero, Robin Hood-type vibe in the community. He wants to open an Irish pub, and borrows money from Christopher Walken, who borrows it from the Gambino family in New York. When the money gets stolen before making it, Walken tells Danny that he's responsible, and Danny tells him no, HE'S responsible. This is the beginning of his major problems with the mafia. Before you know it, Walken is trying to kill him, and he's killing Walken. This is where the car bombs start in earnest, and all the stuff abut the mafia trying repeatedly to kill him, and being unable to. Meanwhile, Danny starts dating a much younger woman, Callie.

Then it's mafia war in Cleveland, and we learn that in 1976, 36 bombs were exploded in that city. Danny goes to the very mobsters that want him dead and asks for a bunch of money to go away, where he will retire to a ranch in Texas. The mafia hire this super-assassin to come after him. Vincent D'Onofrio has a big part in here, by the way, although he isn't central to anything. By this time Danny has to watch his every move, and he takes someone else's car to the next town just to go to the dentist. As he's upstairs, he sees a car park right next to his in the empty parking lot. When he comes out, there are kids fascinated with him as a mob hero, and he gives one of them the crucifix that the old woman gave to him. If you think he might be dead within seconds of taking off that crucifix, you might be ready to write your own screenplay!

This is a good example of a movie that is just plain lame. It has an interesting story and a complicated hero, it's just that the screenwriter can't find a way to bring it all into an overall narrative that means something or makes any kind of statement, and you end up with straight biography, just a series of events. Which aren't even that true. In reality, he was a real killer and not all that great a guy. You can read the real story here.

But, what does it all matter? Why is it important? This movie seems to feel it can coast by on it's good cast--good but a bit cliche by now as they're a collection of luminaries from past gangster films, and the only spark it can get from reminding you of other, better gangster movies. Does it have anything interesting to say about mafia control of a small town in the Midwest? Not really. Is it interested in the psychology of Danny himself, and how he justifies his behavior to himself, still managing to think that he is somewhat of a good person? Not so much. Does it want to delve into the mental cost of having to avoid being killed all the time? Nope again. So you're just left with a "This happened, then this happened..." structure, then it ends. And Danny himself is a charming low-life scumbag, but still quite a low-life scumbag, and there's really not much to admire about him. He's not even awful enough to inspire a Tony Montana-style admiration, so ultimately you get to the end and kind of have to ask yourself why you wanted to watch this in the first place.

Should you watch it: 

If you're a mafia film fanatic and are prepared to watch even a lame one. Otherwise, avoid.