The best thing about Kill the Irishman is its low budget homespun quality. It’s the sort of approach that Martin Scorsese used for Mean Streets. Sadly, the comparison stops there. The film seems content to stay in first gear and only tell its fascinating story without exploring any of the characters. Ideas go no where, characters are introduced and then not developed, and none of the performers moved beyond reciting their lines.
Still, the film captures a spirit that most other gangster films cannot. It aimed high, higher than films like The Boondock Saints ever did. Sure, it fell a tad short, but I admire the ambition.
The film takes place in dark ages Cleveland, Ohio, when it was still a thoroughly mobbed out town. My dad grew up in Ohio during this time period, and would often regale me with stories about how his parents were scared of him finding strewn body parts on his walk to school. Any how, one man named Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson) is elected president of a union (over a mob associate who is abusing the workers) and then starts to take over some of the rackets that the mob ruled. With the help of his associate John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio) Greene is actually quite successful, taking over a popular loan shark’s territory (this guy is played by Christopher Walken… I would look up the character’s name, but what’s the point) and ultimately anger more Italians than a “your mother” joke. They try to send out many hits against him, but these only make matters worse and start a full-fledged gang war. Val Kilmer narrates the story and plays a police officer named Manditski who knew Danny as a child.
That last sentence demonstrates one of the film’s greatest short comings – the relationship between Manditski and Greene. Or rather, the complete lack of one. This could have been the pivotal focus of the film but goes absolutely nowhere. Indeed, Kilmer’s role in the proceedings feels rather confused. He does nothing to propel the story or to reveal traits in Greene. Why else would he have been made the narrator if not to make up for shortcomings in his character’s role?
That is actually something that the film never does – examine Danny. He was a man who changed the region he lived in forever (the film ends by intoning about how he directly lead to the downfall of the Cleveland mob…don’t act like that’s a spoiler, it’s history) but the film does not seem as interested in his motivations or in his humanity. Yes, there are all too brief glimpses about his marital life and his own views on violence, they are far too brief and prevent Kill the Irishman from reaching its true potential. Like Goodfellas, this is a story that was based on a real man. But unlike that Scorsese masterpiece, Kill the Irishman doesn’t seem particularly interested in making Danny a man. He remains more of a symbol of defiance…which is how the people in Ohio certainly viewed him, but I was more interested in how he viewed himself. I guess I was on the wrong page.
Still, the film does contain some of the best look at gang violence I’ve seen. Most gangster films are too clean in the way they depict murder. Here, every single murder is turned into an event – a very loud, brutal event that was meant to send a clear message. Yes, some will think that the film has a fetish like fascination with car bombs, but then, so did the Cleveland mob. Besides, murder is meant to be a nasty business, and this film definitely emphasizes that loss.
Why did I admire this? Because it demonstrated that Greene’s life and his actions were not actions meant to be idolized. Sure, it helped beg the questions I raised earlier, but it did demonstrate that the filmmakers knew what sort of message they wanted to send. After all, Scorsese (I keep mentioning him because it was his template the filmmakers copied) tried to do the same thing in many of his films, by showing the result of “glamorous” violence. The average Hollywood film these days usually shows as many bodies as it possibly can, with no feeling about what they are showing.
It is a minor detail, but one that was important because it shows that the film had a head on its shoulders. This also leads to many of the film’s best moments, which mostly center around the supporting cast. Walken is a standout (he usually is) as is Paul Sorvino in the few scenes that he is in. They manage to make the material feel like a documentary – I got the sense that their lines were items that people in that profession would actually say. This is not meant to be a violent, glamorous film. Even the “heroic” actions of Greene (he did stand up to the mob, after all) came with a heavy price. I can understand and encourage people for liking those moments – they are almost the complete opposite of the attitude popular media normally takes to crime.
Is Kill The Irishman the best gangster film? Not by a long shot – we learn surprisingly little about Danny and (except for one belated scene in which Danny speaks with children) are shown nothing about Greene’s own feelings about his situation. It doesn’t even come close to approaching the complexity of Scorsese. Still, for it is, it’s well executed and features a very entertaining look at a past that not a