Car bombs dominate the cinematic landscape in Kill the Irishman. They do so literally, as there’s practically a new explosion every ten minutes, and psychologically, as the fear of the bomb, the pervasive threat of a sudden and spectacular death, powerfully informs the lives of the gangsters in filmmaker Jonathan Hensleigh’s true portrait of the mob wars that rocked 1970s Cleveland.
The thick, persistent tension which comes with the understanding that it could all be over at any second cuts through the familiar mob movie tropes. Despite the presence of standards such as clandestine meetings in dark restaurants and thickly-accented spaghetti-inhaling goombas, Hensleigh’s film — which he co-wrote with Jeremy Walters (based on a book by Rick Porrello, an Ohio police chief) — hews closer in tone to a war picture than Goodfellas. Thus, with notable visceral force, the film conveys organized crime’s sheer futility, the pervasive notion that it’s comprised of grown men with outsized egos engaged in deadly battles for scraps of nothing.
In another life, protagonist Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson) might have been a leader of note — a politician, perhaps, or a CEO. Tall and handsome, blessed with endless charisma and imbued with confidence to spare, the Irishman should have been the success story standard for his childhood neighbors in Cleveland’s projects. Yet no force shaped Greene quite as powerfully as his all-consuming rage, which could be directed toward the anti-Irish bullies that tormented him or the corrupt union bosses that exploited him. The criminal world holds a powerful allure for the angry. So, it was there that the young Clevelander blossomed into a fearsome force, happy to assert his will with brutal violence, while becoming a folk hero of sorts for his persistent, public advocacy of Irish supremacy.
The film efficiently chronicles the succession of events that, from the late ’60s into the ’70s, transformed Greene from a two-bit debt collector into the boss of Cleveland’s Irish mob, as well as the trusted right hand of top Italian crime figure John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio). The screenplay offers a straightforward and clearly-delineated path through the labyrinthine interests and endless backrooms traversed by the Irishman on his quest to the top. Aside from an opening flash-forward that sets the tone for what’s to come by depicting Greene’s last-second escape from a car bomb, Hensleigh roots the film on a linear journey that sells certain narrative elements short but captures the essence of its bombastic protagonist.
It’s an exploration rife with verisimilitude, featuring a wealth of strong character actors given the chance to make a blue-collar impression. Besides D’Onfrio — whose Nardi is an eerily lovable buffoon — the film offers Christopher Walken resisting the urge to chew too much scenery as Hungarian-Jewish crime honcho Shondor Burns and Val Kilmer offering the restrained outsider’s perspective as detective Joe Manditski. Stevenson as Green is the sort of serendipitous casting that should garner ample attention. The Irish-born actor, a striking muscled figure playing his first lead role of note (sorry kids, Punisher: War Zone doesn’t count), exudes the sort of dominant screen presence, with just the ideal hint of vulnerability, from which past legends have been born.
Hensleigh surrounds his actors with a strong sense of urban decay, painting a vivid picture of a world of crumbling factories, run-down streets and rusting homes. A muddy brown grime seeps through the screen, parlayed in stark wide shots of the leather jacket-clad characters stomping across town and shadowy, sinister close-ups in smoky bars. An oil slick famously set Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River ablaze in 1969, turning the city into a national joke and the centerpiece of American metropolitan blight. The filmmaker, working with cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, encases his audience in the miserable environment birthed from that epochal event.
The depressed setting enhances the all-encompassing hopelessness that’s crucial to Hensleigh’s portrait of tragically unencumbered, pointless killing. The combat that left so many dead was for control of a crumbling city that had seen much better days, surely no urban paradise. It’s not that the filmmaker suggests mob warfare in New York or Chicago would be somehow nobler or more purposeful than in Cleveland. Yet, as shots of smoke plumes filling the sky give way to images of men in grim back alleys falling to their knees in spasms of blood — or others being blown to pieces by fiery bombs — it’s hard not to question what, exactly, they’re fighting for.
Much of Kill the Irishman rings familiar, from the endless haggling over ownership of turf and illicit activities to the mysteriously New York-sounding wise guy accents sported by much of the supporting cast. Hensleigh’s film stands apart and stands out from its countless predecessors, though, in its evocation of the existential essence of a life spent perpetually looking over one’s shoulder, in which an everyday act such as starting your car could easily be your last. The tense, coiled atmosphere, littered with the victims of countless car bombs, deglamorizes the gangster and makes one thing clear: it wasn’t easy being Danny Greene.
The Upside: An authentic, existential gangster movie.
The Downside: A lot of familiar gangster picture elements.
On the Side: Sadly, this iconic Cleveland tale was filmed in Detroit because Michigan offered a major tax credit, director Jonathan Hensleigh told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.