It’s hardly the only instance of a mob film you’ll be reminded of while watching writer/director Jonathan Hensleigh’s biopic of Irish gangster Danny Greene, but at least the filmmaker cribs from the best and makes them work for his own.
If the phrase “luck of the Irish” didn’t already exist, it would have to be invented just for Greene, who survived numerous attempts on his life before finally going down. As played by Ray Stevenson (“Punisher: War Zone,” “Thor”), he’s a mostly sympathetic career criminal, if only because everyone else around him is far more corrupt.
After mistreatment by the leader of his longshoreman union, Greene usurped the man through a mix of brute force and fierce intelligence, beginning a highly public reign among the Cleveland mob throughout the 1970s. When charges of grand larceny, extortion and racketeering topple him, he goes into the field of “debt collection” for loan shark Birns (Christopher Walken).
Their business relationship ceases to exist when Greene plans to open a pub with $70,000 of money borrowed from the Gambino family, and Birns says a courier made off with it. Since Greene never touched the money and didn’t hire the courier, he thinks Birns should be the one on the hook for it; Birns responds by placing a $25,000 bounty on Greene’s head, drawing termites out of the woodwork.
Angrily slamming a pay phone, going into the lucrative garbage biz, an overbearing mother who cooks, a stabbing of a guy in a car trunk — again, you can spot a number of scenes you’ve seen before, from HBO’s “The Sopranos” to Scorsese’s masterwork of “Goodfellas.” In fact, the film nearly operates from the “Goodfellas” template, with Stevenson in the Ray Liotta role, Linda Cardellini (“Brokeback Mountain”) in Lorraine Bracco’s, and so on. And hey, there’s even Paul Sorvino!
However, strong performances — Stevenson especially — keep “Irishman” from feeling derivative. Because the actor is not your Robert De Niro or Joe Pesci or anyone else viewers readily associate with the gangster genre, he’s a surprise to watch. The cast is riddled with excellent support, to even the briefest of players: Vincent D’Onofrio, Bob Gunton, Tony Lo Bianco, Laura Ramsey (now there’s an impression), Vinnie Jones, Robert Davi and, as our sad-cop narrator, Val Kilmer.
When Walken’s first lines are about the sodium level of stroganoff, you fear Hensleigh’s script is going to let Walken go unhinged; luckily, the opposite is true. Once a go-to blockbuster screenwriter (“Armageddon,” “Die Hard with a Vengeance”), Hensleigh moved into the director’s chair with the disappointing “The Punisher” (ironically, not the one Stevenson starred in), and his horror-oriented “Welcome to the Jungle” was so bad, it skipped a nationwide theatrical release. So has “Kill the Irishman,” which is too bad, because it’s more than gripping enough to earn one.
In fact, so well-told is this true-life tale that I suspect it will catch on and develop a small cult. Already, it’s one of the few direct-to-DVD gems the year has given us thus far. If you’ve already digested the two-part “Mesrine” gangster epic and are hungry for more, this meaty piece should do the trick. —Rod Lott