Kill the Irishman

It’s tough being a gangster in Cleveland

Main Cast: Ray Stevenson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Christopher Walken

Director: Jonathan Hensleigh

Organized crime buffs are sure to find plenty to like in writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh’s Kill the Irishman.  Chronicling the life and times of Irish mobster Danny Greene, the film has the added benefit of being based on a true story.  Turns out gangster fact is just as brutal as gangster fiction.

Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson) was a working longshoreman in early 1960’s Cleveland when he first heard the siren’s song of crime and power.  Rising from working man to union leader gave him the confidence to broaden out into the then-flourishing world of organized crime in Ohio.  It seems like an unlikely place for mafia activity but back in the day it was a veritable hotbed of mobsters.

For almost 20 years Danny fought and scraped and bluffed his way through the ranks of the largely Italian controlled Cleveland mob.  Not only that, he also refused to follow the rules.  Brash, cocky and physically intimidating, Danny was not afraid to get his hands dirty – or bloody – to get what he wanted.  And what he wanted was power.  He spent his money buying the loyalty of his neighborhood, abandoned his family and lived and breathed ambition.  He wanted to run the show and wasn’t afraid to risk his life to do it.

The real hook to the Danny Greene story is the number of times he cheated death.  He was shot, stabbed, blown up and more yet managed to survive to battle another day.  As tension with local mob bosses increased, so did the attempts on his life.  He became a larger than life figure – invincible.  His decision to challenge the local and national mafia set off a mob war that enveloped an entire summer and resulted in unprecedented levels of gangster violence throughout Cleveland.

Kill the Irishman is a stylish period piece with carefully detailed set design and wardrobe from the early 60s through the late 70s.  Cleveland was a working man’s town and that’s exactly what we see.  Danny himself changes over time both in wardrobe and demeanor.  He goes from a young, somewhat idealistic and intelligent young man to a single focus middle aged gangster.  Ray Stevenson does a decent job with the role.  He bears quite a resemblance to the middle aged Danny Greene we see in film footage in the DVD extras.  He has a harder time pulling off the younger man and isn’t entirely successful – Greene never looks quite as young as he should in the early scenes of the film.

The supporting cast is terrific, including Vincent D’Onofrio as fellow mobster John Nardi and Christopher Walken as

Christopher Walken, born to play a mobster

high profile loan shark Shondor Birns.  Linda Cardellini shows up as Greene’s long-suffering wife and Paul Sorvino makes a brief appearance as a New York family head.  Not so awesome is a rather bloated Val Kilmer as narrator and a police officer who was acquainted with Greene through neighborhood ties.  He’s stiff and his part is underwritten to the point of being completely unnecessary.

Kill the Irishman certainly has a lot to offer anyone interested in the history of organized crime.  As a piece of entertainment it comes up short.  Great supporting performances don’t make up for the only adequate performance of Stevenson and the inherent repulsiveness of Danny Greene.  Though Hensleigh tries throughout the movie to give Greene glimmers of humanity he can’t really cover the fact that the man was a brutal, murderous, power hungry thug – just like those he opposed.  As the film progressed I felt less and less connection with him as a protagonist and ended up not really caring about his fate.  It is interesting history but not, for me, compelling cinema.

The DVD includes an extended extra detailing the true story of Danny Greene, complete with pictures, film footage and interviews with people who knew him.  The true story doesn’t deviate a whole lot from what we learn in the movie and the picture painted of Greene is even a little uglier.  Once again, historically interesting for the right audience but I found it far too long and rather boring.  Overall 2 ½ stars for Kill the Irishman which succeeds as a detailed historical drama but failed me as a viewer without a lot of interest in organized crime.  Check it out if the mob is your thing, otherwise skip it.

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