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There's a deliciously seedy grime that seeps out of every image and guides the sparse production design of this brutal, often witty Mob saga about infamous Cleveland thug Daniel Greene and the criminal underworld he inhabited from the early '60s until his ultimate demise in 1977. Kill the Irishman
may not go down in the top annals of gritty cinematic Mafia tales, but for pure brawn, attention to period detail, and the bravado of its enthusiastic cast it's a rousing tale of a real-life crime figure whose legend is well worth knowing and made more intriguing by the movie's stylish telling. Irish actor Ray Stevenson fills out the barrel-chested role of Greene with super-confident relish, as he strong-arms his way through anecdotal incidents that show the Irish-American hood rising from the docks into corrupt union jobs, work as an enforcer for local hoods, and finally butting heads with top-echelon Mob figures back east. The budget is slim, but the pared-down look works in the movie's favor by providing rough edges that grind against each other the same way the characters' egos, crusty leather jackets, and petty beefs do. Director Jonathan Hensleigh integrates actual TV news footage from the era as part of the backdrop to what was a hair-raising few years in Cleveland during the mid '70s, when rival crime figures were rubbing each other out all over the city, primarily with car bombs. Greene earned a reputation for being bulletproof--or more like bombproof--based on the number of times he escaped assassination from the bosses he gave annoyance to.
The narrative is largely a series of strung-together incidents that marked the man's rise to infamy: Greene busting his way into the unions then promptly getting busted out; Greene working as Mob or union muscle; Greene contracting to the Mafia; Greene running his own crew; Greene scheming to scam his way out of a loan shark debt. It's all briskly paced and set to the beat of period funk and soul or the Celtic rhythms that more aptly describe the spirit of Greene and his belief that he was descended from ancient Irish warlords who left him with a streak of immortality. The supporting cast is a riot of old or familiar faces that give credibility to the crime drama spirit. Christopher Walken plays an ashen-faced restaurateur and numbers-runner who takes Greene under his wing before he takes out a contract on him. Vincent D'Onofrio is a Cleveland heavy who becomes Greene's viciously loyal partner. Paul Sorvino's turn as New York boss Tony Salerno recalls his epic performance in Goodfellas, and Steven Schirripa (Bobby Baccalieri on The Sopranos) brings weight to his role as a dirty garbage man in more ways than one. Also notable among the array of aging, recognizable faces that play scarily realistic crime figures are Tony Lo Bianco, Vinnie Jones, Robert Davi, Bob Gunton, and Mike Starr. A distressingly puffy Val Kilmer shows up now and again to provide a little contextual narration as the token cop who grew up with Greene. But it's Stevenson who snarls loudest out of the pack of bulldogs in Kill the Irishman, a frugal yet richly entertaining blow-'em-up that should send his movie star stock sky high. --Ted Fry