When I heard about the film Kill the Irishman, I thought Jonathan Hensleigh had it out for me. I liked plenty of Hensleigh’s previous penned films, such as Criterion alumni Armageddon, along with Die Hard With a Vengeance, The Saint (even though this was rewritten to a very bare bones version), Jumanji (I was young once) and even his adaptation of The Punisher with Thomas Jane was a fun present day western, about one man’s loss and getting the revenge he believe he deserves. But after that film failed to make any money at the box office, Hensleigh fell back a bit and made Welcome to the Jungle, a very forgettable film, so much so that it was designated to Dimension Extreme’s home video line. But when I saw the cast list announced way back when, with Ray Stevenson playing the Irishman himself Danny Greene accompanied by Val Kilmer, Vincent D’Onofrio and Christopher Walken, it was on my ‘to watch’ list.
Danny Greene (Stevenson) grows up in Cleveland in a prominently Italian neighborhood, always being picked on but never backing down. As he grows older, he works on the docks and hates the way he and his fellow workers are being treated. He fights back, using his belief that he was a descendant of Celtic warriors, and gains the vote for union boss himself. He’s not against getting his hands dirty and his two closest friends and co-workers Art Sneperger (Jason Butler Harner) and Billy McComber (Marcus Thomas) make sure nothing and nobody will get in Greene’s way. When Danny meets with the Italian mobster, John Nardi (D’Onofrio), they find they have the same interests and decide to work with one another, Nardi protecting his union and Greene letting Nardi and the mob take a bit from the shippers on the docks.
When the corruption of his union ways gets him incarcerated, it starts a downward spiral for his marriage with Joan (Linda Cardellini) but keeps him close with Nardi and starts to work with Shondor Birns (Walken). When Greene wants to legitimately open a huge restaurant, Birns helps him with the borrowing of the $75,000. When the couriers bringing the money from New York use it in a heroin deal and get arrested, Greene is told to pay back the debt. But Danny believes in fairness and tells Birns to go to hell, which triggers a huge gang war that extends between New York and Cleveland and started the infamous car bombings that raged through 1976. Not breaking a sweat, Greene continues to fight back, rocking the mob themselves which was never an easy thing to do.
Ray Stevenson is brilliant as Danny Greene, giving a multi-layered performance that was sadly ignored completely by most people, balancing on that tightrope of likable and unlikable that is never an easy task. You fall in love with that character right away but shake your head at some moments because you know he is so much better than that but the life of crime has put him down this route. It reminds me of Ray Liotta’s classic performance as Henry Hill in Goodfellas. That might seem a hefty comparison but Stevenson exudes that likability and gives it a little more lower class style, where Greene is a longshoreman, a working man who has always had society against him in general. You understand why he takes this road and his sense of right and wrong never wavers throughout. When he tells Art that he hopes that he never gambles again and then hears about it later on, you’ve crossed a man you should never do so with, therefore the punishment is severe.
Val Kilmer is a bit wasted in this film, never doing much except trying to take down Greene, who in reality he grew up with in Collinwood and liked a bit. He narrates clumsily through the 100 minute running time, making it feel a bit forced and one wishes for a Stevenson narration track instead. It’s understandable because of events that occur and if you know the true life story, you can see why they did this but sometimes if a narrator sounds forced, the film will feel this at times. Walken isn’t as forced, luckily, and gives a more nuanced performance as mob fixer/loan shark Birns. He’s likable right away and you see his kinship with Greene and it’s even more heartbreaking when money comes in between them and starts the infamous ‘kill the Irishman’ hit that led to many people dying due to car bombings. As opposed to most gangster films that rely on guns, this one feels much more personal when you take someone out in such a huge fashion.
D’Onofrio is also a treat as mobster and union mastermind John Nardi. You feel the brotherly love between he and Greene and you just want them to conquer all that try to ruin their lives. It’s pretty bizarre that you cheer on one set of criminals in these films and boo the ones opposing them, sometimes other criminals or even funnier still, the police themselves. When the characters are cut from real life and take just enough of that reality to give us a snapshot of their lives and that time, it’s definitely a great thing when you like these characters. We also have a who’s who from other gangster films and TV shows, such as Steve Schirippa, Vinnie Jones, Tony Darrow, Tony Lo Bianco, Paul Sorvino and Robert Davi who all give great performances and make due with their limited screen time.
Detailing the actors in the last few paragraphs, one must warn people about the constant use of CGI for the car bombings and other various explosions. At times, especially in the first half of the film, it looks quite abysmal and will take you completely out of the film. It just doesn’t look organic and I wish they instead used miniatures or actually, you know, blew up a car or two. They do so later on in the film (either that or got better with the CGI). And the 1970’s feel is only showcased via the clothing, the hair (Stevenson’s is one to behold and I mean that in a positive way), the cars and the music, but it is always the more extreme side which I’m not saying is a negative, but is almost a fashion show of sorts for the cast. Another wise choice was to intercut real life news footage of people speaking about Danny Greene and the crimes that were going on at the time. It’s a nice touch that is done rather well throughout the film.
What Hensleigh has made here is a minor crime/gangster film. Never reaching the greatness it might have had with a more capable director, it always feels like it is grasping at the greatness this story deserves. It’s a good film, with one stellar lead performance from Stevenson that shows why the man is a star and should be in more dramatic roles. Recently signing on to the sequel to G.I. Joe as the villainous Firefly. Because it’s Stevenson, I’m instantly interested. The Blu-ray and DVD from Anchor Bay also includes the fantastic documentary on Danny Greene himself, with archive news footage and interviews with people that knew Greene in some way or another. It’s definitely worth a watch, just for the one performance alone and the 1970’s throwback feel.