Fightin' Irish almost hit their mark.
Forget about New York and Chicago. If Kill the Irishman is any indication, the true center of mafia violence in the mid–1970s was Cleveland. Though it trends toward the cliche, Jonathan Hensleigh’s biopic about Danny Greene, the Forest City’s top Irish mobster, reveals the complicated — and extremely violent — world of mob relations in northern Ohio.
Greene (Stevenson) is an uneducated Irish–Catholic Cleveland native who manages to rise from a longshoreman to a union boss. From there, he draws on his connections to the mafia to advance in the business world. Unafraid to beat men twice his size into a pulp or shoot them smack in the forehead, Greene garners himself a long line of enemies.
Which is not to say that Greene doesn’t also have his share of friends. The film is narrated by Joe Manditski (Val Kilmer), a Cleveland cop who was a childhood friend of the Irishman. Kilmer works the character in an expertly ambiguous way, leaving the viewer constantly unclear of whose side he is on. John Nardi (D’Onofrio) also becomes Greene’s veritable sidekick — though the interplay between D’Onofrio and Stevenson never manages to feel truly authentic.
Still, out of the star–studded male cast, the scene stealer is undeniably Walken, who plays Jewish loanshark and restauranteur Shondor Birns. Despite relatively minimal screen time, Walken overshadows his co–stars with his cool charisma and sly words. Similarly, Fionnula Flanagan shines as Greene’s profoundly Irish neighbor, embodying the passionate, yet cynical, spirit of her homeland. Her scenes with Stevenson are by far the film’s most emotionally charged.
Despite the strong cast and exciting plot, Kill the Irishman ultimately suffers from an identity crisis. Hensleigh never seems quite sure whether his film is a biopic, mob flick or an action movie, and the attempt to blend the three makes Kill the Irishman lose steam. A handful of witty scenes rescue the narrative when it starts to grow dull, and Stevenson deftly handles the bad–ass Irish gangster persona. But even with his grand performance, the movie falls short.
Directed by: Jonathan Hensleigh
Starring: Ray Stevenson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Christopher Walken
Rated R, 106 min.