Friday, March 11, 2011

Kill the Irishman

Review by Charles Cassady Jr.

I've applied for scores of jobs of every description here since the 1980s. It's quite crushed my spirit, unending boot-stomp-in-the-face employment turn-downs in work for which I was highly qualified. In my imaginings, there would be a job that required a successful applicant have (1) MY Social Security Number, (2) MY name, (3) MY iris pattern, (4) MY fingerprints, (5) MY ribonucleic acid-DNA sequences. Human Resources would still hire someone else. Most likely, given what I've observed, someone else who was a young female.

So it was with grim satisfaction I learned the true-crime drama KILL THE IRISHMAN, a 100 per cent Cleveland-content feature, set in Cleveland, based on a Clevelander's book, telling a great Cleveland saga...had rejected this city in favor of shooting almost entirely in Detroit, where a special Michigan film tax at the time offered more incentives to the production outfit. I did jam a little on the idea that Cleveland, source of my despair, got the same leper treatment. Maybe "The LeBron James Story" will lens in Akron and Florida, deciding his Cavaliers period was not worth mentioning.

One can say this for KILL THE IRISHMAN: Detroit was a wise move in capturing a tactile sense of the North Coast in the 1960s and 1970s, as a gritty, ugly, sooty Great Lakes port city. No glittery Rock Hall, no glass-and-aluminum Erieview skyscrapers, no cell phone towers. I think I spotted Detroit's landmark Penobscot building in a few scenes, which could well pass for the degraded, alcoholic little brother of the Terminal Tower. So good for Detroit. The movie? Oh, okay, if you insist.

Danny Greene, for those of you too young to remember (like the females who got all those jobs) was a flamboyant Cleveland crime figure of the 1960s and 70s who, for a while, seemed harder to kill than Rasputin and - fortunately for this movie, anyway - managed to put across something of Robin Hood image and didn't seem to indulge in gratuitous cruelty. To some he's still a folk hero. It was 1997 when local true-crime author Rich Porello (now Lyndhurst Chief of Police) was first approached by Hollywood outfits seeking material for the saga of the flamboyant local mobster Danny Greene, as chronicled in Porello's book To Kill the Irishman. The movie follows that text pretty closely. We first meet Greene (Ray Stevenson) growing up in tough neighborhoods and learning the laws of the jungle early. After working as an exploited longshoreman Greene seizes the union himself, basically by having better punching skills than the Polish giant used by the corrupt boss as muscle.

But Danny also learns that, in Cleveland, with Great Power Comes Great Mob Ties, and to bail out a troublesome friend's gambling debts Greene allows local gangsters a cut of the loot. For that and other, more typical Cuyahoga County graft (I guess we can mention Jimmy DiMora here; anyone really believe things will change?) Greene is arrested, expelled from the union, and forced to move from a nice house to the Collinwood ghetto. Only some minor informing for the police saves him from a worse sentence.

The underworld admires Greene's wiles and uses him as a debt collector. Greene also solidifies a hard-guy-to-hard-guy friendship and alliance with John Nardi (Vincent D'Onofrio) against a former employer, the old-time Jewish gang lord Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken). Each side tries to kill the other, with incompetent hired gunsels and bombs, to the point that the violence makes network TV news.

I was an adolescent while all this was going on and I really didn't realize this was all so severe at the time. In this wiseguy feud Greene escapes with minor wounds, while other Clevelanders are killed. Lots of Clevelanders are killed. So many Clevelanders are killed that, by the end of the picture, I swear...there was probably a job opening somewhere.

Despite his local media infamy Greene positively brags about his invincibility. He also - and the movie lays this on pretty thick - styles himself as a source of mystic force-of-nature Celtic warrior. That proud-Irishman bit was all quite true according to Porello's book. Even so, it's not enough to save Greene as New York syndicates find Greene an intolerable annoyance and, in 1977, they summon an out-of-town hit man (onetime Bond villain Robert Davi) with more bomb finesse than the Cleveland assassins.

The ending is the weakest part of the thing; Greene goes nobly to his doom like he's read the script beforehand, and the uillean pipes rise on the soundtrack. Otherwise KILL THE IRISHMAN is a decent, sturdy gangster story. Jonathan Hensleigh directs with no look-ma-I’m-a-wonder-filmmaker acrobatics in the camera angles, no cutesy Tarantino dialogue, no USUAL SUSPECTS twist, just the plain, unadorned narrative, worthy of Warner Brothers crime flicks of the 1930s – what the late Gene Siskel always upheld as “good working-class cinema.” The material also puts forth an argument, again, straight outta Porello, that the sloppy Greene murder got the bicoastal mob's hands so dirty that the law was able to deal the rackets a severe blow. And thus, Danny is cast in the sacrificial-lamb role, the guy who brought down the Godfathers, even if posthumously (and semi-unintentionally).

Greene met his violent end outside his dentist's Lyndhurst office building, a place I've driven past often (and even applied to work in once. Unsuccessfully). There was a time I had the privilege to chauffeur a few visiting filmmakers past that famous murder scene, and I pointed it out. They were gore-crime buffs and seemed a little more fascinated than I was comfortable with. But it was nice to bring a smile to somebody's face. I don't get to do that often. And I suppose I have Danny Greene to thank for it. Guy was a bit of a Robin Hood after all. (3 out of 4 stars)

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