In the 1970s, the city of Cleveland played host to a turf war between the Italian mafia and an Irish crime syndicate headed by Danny Greene. In Kill the Irishman, Ray Stevenson (Punisher: War Zone) plays the titular Celtic warrior in a biopic based on true events. Writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh (The Punisher) allows Stevenson to tread ambiguous moral ground in his portrayal of Greene, but the movie tends to lean towards establishing Greene as a folk hero instead of a murderous criminal. Hit the jump for my review.
Kill the Irishman starts off with a bang…literally. Greene (Stevenson) is cruising down the street in his Kelly-green suit and matching Cadillac when he narrowly avoids being killed by a car bomb hidden in his dashboard. This really is a perfect stage setting scene for Kill the Irishman, as over 35 explosions occurred in Cleveland during this time period, earning it the newspaper moniker, “Bomb City, U.S.A.” To paraphrase Ed Kovacic, ex-Chief of Police of Cleveland who knew Greene personally:
“Bombs have a language. If somebody’s doing something and you want them to stop…you might lay a stick of dynamite on the hood of their car. If you’re really mad at ‘em, you blow up their car. If you put a command (remotely detonated) bomb on, you want to kill ‘em.”
Undoubtedly, Greene got the message but threw it in the face of the mobsters who were trying to kill him. Surviving multiple attacks on his life, including stabbings, gunshots, car bombs and even an explosion that brought his house down around him, Greene earned a reputation of being indestructible.
Kill the Irishman next introduces detective Joe Manditski (Val Kilmer), who is based in part on the above-mentioned Kovacic. Manditski narrates portions of the film and fills in Greene’s backstory as a poor Irish kid who was frequently beaten up by Italian bullies. Kilmer’s narration at first has a Goodfellas kind of feel, but it occurs at odd moments and quickly becomes distracting. Kilmer’s character could have been interesting as a foil against Greene, much like Pacino and De Niro in Heat or Russel Crowe and Denzel Washington in American Gangster, but his on-screen attempts are even flatter than his narration.
The rest of the supporting cast acts mostly as space-fillers, with few exceptions. In what looks like a casting call from The Sopranos, the Italian mobster roles were filled by such familiar wise guys as Tony Lo Bianco, Mike Starr and Tony Darrow. Tough guys were recruited on either side, be it Robert Davi as the mafia’s hitman or Vinnie Jones as Greene’s right hand man. None of the performances made much of an impression. Even leading ladies Linda Cardellini, who plays Greene’s wife, and Laura Ramsey, who plays his mistress, take a backseat to both story and screentime.
Fionnula Flanagan, as Greene’s very Irish neighbor, does a good job of righting Greene’s moral compass and waving the Irish-pride flag to raise his spirits. Christopher Walken turns in a slick bit of work as mobster Shondor Birns, whose double-cross of Greene literally ignites a powder keg and sets off the turf war. The performance, in fairness, it’s pretty much just Walken being Walken.
So it’s left to Stevenson to carry the movie on his broad shoulders. He portrays the two sides of Danny Greene with relative ease and believability. His toughness, physical presence and durability bring life to Greene’s reputation as a ruthless and indestructible Celtic warrior. But Stevenson’s charisma, intelligence and confidence also show us how someone like Greene could have won the hearts of the people in the neighborhood he protected and charmed the police and FBI agents that gave him a long leash.
The only major problem I have with Kill the Irishman is Hensleigh’s choice to make it a folk hero celebration rather than a realistic portrayal of a complicated and dynamic individual. Though this is purely a creative difference, I feel that it was a missed opportunity not to delve deeper into the physical destruction and emotional scars that Greene left in his wake. The folksy moments are heavy handed and forced, though they are few and far between. There are a few scenes of Greene and his wife (Cardellini) that show their degenerating relationship, but they come without real consequences for Greene. A handful of moments of remorse are scattered about the film, but not enough to push the needle from “action flick” to “well-balanced gangster film.”
Kill the Irishman has the vintage quality of Boardwalk Empire with the heritage of The Black Donnellys, and, though its value comes up just a bit short of both, I’d recommend it to fans of gangster lore or anyone who is interested in the fascinating life of Danny Greene.
The trailer for Kill the Irishman, which you can also watch here.
“Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman” is an hour long documentary about the real life legend of Danny Greene. It features interviews with former mobsters, policemen, federal agents and family members, all who have intimate (and sometimes starkly contrasting) perceptions of Greene. It also features author Rick Porello who wrote “To Kill the Irishman” (on which the movie is partially based).
Throughout the hour, we see archival footage from press coverage of the mob war in Cleveland in the 1970s, some of which was seen in the actual film. There are gruesome crime scene photos alongside humorous anecdotes about Greene’s exploits. Some of the stories will have you asking, “Why didn’t they use that in the film?” It’s an interesting look into the man’s life and does a slightly better job at a realistic portrayal, though still reinforces Greene’s position as a legend and folk hero in Cleveland.