Cleveland may not be the first place you’d think of as the locale of a mob melodrama, but in the 1970s the Ohio city was actually the site of a violent war that involved the Italian Mafia and an Irish street gang headed by Danny Greene, the fellow whose targeting is referenced in the title of Jonathan Hensleigh’s modest, moderately entertaining picture.
Ray Stevenson plays Greene, whose rise and fall is chronicled by his childhood pal Joe Manditski (Val Kilmer), who became a cop and narrates the film. After a brief prologue sketching Greene’s rough boyhood, the script by Hensleigh and Jeremy Walters, based on a non-fiction book by Rick Porrello, jumps to his stint as a dock-worker and his takeover of the union from its long-time boss. When he’s arrested for racketeering—including an arrangement he made to pilfer cargoes with Mafia kingpin John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio)—he agrees to give information on the mob to the feds in return for his release, but instead links up with his old confederates again and becomes an enforcer for numbers boss Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken), a restaurateur.
But Danny has higher ambitions, and with Nardi’s help links up with Cleveland’s more sartorially genteel, old-school kingpin Jack Licavoli (Tony Lo Bianco) in some schemes of mutual profit involving the garbage-hauling trade. Unfortunately, things go awry, and in time Greene is at odds with Birns and he and Nardi are locked in a brutal struggle with Licavoli and his minions. The preferred method of dealing with one’s enemies is via bombs rather than bullets, so there are more explosions than gunfights here (although a number of people get whacked via revolver, too); and the list of characters gradually decreases as the body count rises. Ultimately even the New York branch of the Mafia (n the person of Paul Sorvino, of all people) is drawn into what seems an endless spiral of violence. Needless to say, the story does not end happily—except perhaps for the FBI and Cleveland itself.
“Kill the Irishman” isn’t likely to displace classic mob movies. Hensleigh is no Scorsese, and he Walters aren’t always successful in laying out the facts very clearly. The proliferation of characters also means that some of them—even ones that are around frequently—never develop much of an identity. (Greene’s wife, played by Linda Cardellini, and Elie, the young woman he romances after she leaves—played by Laura Ramsey—are barely sketched in.) At times you might feel in need of a scorecard. And frankly the dilapidation of seventies Cleveland offers so shabby a background that anybody’s ability to extract great sums of money from it strains credulity. One must, however, credit the production team with conveying an authentically gritty period atmosphere; assembling all the cars and then blowing them up must have been an especially daunting task.
What rescues the movie is the cast. Stevenson may seem an unlikely antihero, but he cuts a striking figure as Greene, with plenty of energy and—when needed—menace. And though Kilmer pretty much walks through the Pat O’Brien “good guy” role, D’Onofrio and Walken have fun with their meatier parts. For color one must also mention Fionnulla Flanagan, whose stream of brogue and attitude as Greene’s Old World neighbor is a brief tour de force.
“Kill the Irishman” will hardly replace the classic gangster flicks, but it’s a pretty good little account of an episode in American mob history that had surprisingly wide-ranging ramifications, as the inevitable epilogue informs us. But it was a mite cheeky—some might even say tasteless—for Anchor Bay to have released a picture with this title just in time for St. Patrick’s Day.