Set in the ’70s and endowed with the era’s crime-drama muscle, “Kill the Irishman” also suffers from the period’s proclivity for cloying sentiment and a tendency to Robin Hood-ize its story of a rising Cleveland criminal. Based on Rick Porrello’s book “To Kill the Irishman,” Jonathan Hensleigh’s film won’t displace “Goodfellas” in anyone’s hierarchy of wise-guy movies. But this mob-war romance could still find an audience in niche release, given its action-oriented underdog story and Ray Stevenson’s oddly charismatic lead performance. B.O. could be commensurate with whatever Anchor Bay wants to pour into promotion.
Narration delivered by Joe Manditski (Val Kilmer), a cop who grew up with the irascible title character, immediately evokes “Goodfellas” (Kilmer even sounds like Ray Liotta), as does the film’s cast of well-defined characters. Chief among them is Danny Greene (Stevenson), an Everyman of intellectual aspirations and Irish persuasion whose career arc takes him from longshoreman to union boss to federal prisoner to Mafia leg-beaker to union “organizer” to the man whose defiance of the New York-based Five Families (represented in “Goodfellas” by Paul Sorvino as “Fat Tony” Salerno) led to a summer of bombings in Cleveland and one of the major mob wars of the latter 20th century.
Greene’s comet-like trajectory through the world of Ohio crime brings him into contact with John Nardi (Vincent D’Onofrio, excellent) and Nardi’s rival for Cleveland mob supremacy, Jack Licavoli (Tony Lo Bianco); loan shark Shondor Burns (Christopher Walken, doing classic Walken); Keith Ritson (Vinnie Jones), who helps supply the muscle when Greene breaks with his former allies in the Cleveland underworld; and Mikey Mendarolo (Tony Darrow), a self-made garbage hauler who defies the Licavoli-Naredi-Greene alliance and provides the movie’s primary crisis of conscience.
If all the guns and testosterone make “Irishman” a guy’s movie, some of the more powerful performances in the topnotch cast are given by women: Linda Cardellini is pitch-perfect as Greene’s increasingly disillusioned first wife; conversely, Laura Ramsey’s Ellie O’Hara displays a quasi-erotic fascination with Danny as ne’er-do-well. And Fionnula Flanagan is charmingly tart in the somewhat cliched role of a gnarled old woman whose illusion-free Irishness puts Danny’s Celtic-warrior pretensions in perspective.
But Greene is neither Robin Hood nor a Celtic warrior, despite all the keening pipe music that permeates the soundtrack. In fact, what the film lacks is the sense that the principal character himself has any self-awareness, any knowledge of his place is in the universe. This self-delusion probably makes for a more accessible kind of crime story, but it also keeps the film from being more than sturdy entertainment.
Stevenson, whose recent appearances in “The Book of Eli” and “The Other Guys” shows not just range but a taste for risk, reps an unconventional choice for movie hero. Like Greene himself, he’s a figure who seems more suitable off-center, and yet he rises to the occasion when called upon.
Production values are quite good, notably d.p. Karl Walter Lindenlaub’s work at making Detroit look like Cleveland.