Kill the Irishman: Movie Review


The new movie Kill the Irishmanstarring Belfast actor Ray Stevenson and Law & Order:  Criminal Intent’s Vince D’Onofrio, opened in March.  It’s based on the true story of Danny Greene, a Union man turned semi-independent mobster in Cleveland in the 70s, inspired by Rick Porello’s book To Kill the Irishman:  The War That Crippled the Mafia.  Greene seems to have more lives than a cat when the mob go after him.  There are a lot of explosions in the movie.  It’s a not altogether successful cross between a mobster biopic like Goodfellas,  a cat-and-mouse shoot-em-up and a bad-mobster-good-neighbor film like The Krays.  
But like (Irish)men I’ve dated, every time I got ready to write the movie off for its incoherence or predictability, it would surprise me by showing depth and soul.  Damn.  One of the scenes that sucked me in that way stars Fionula Flanagan, who plays Grace O’Keefe, a tough old Irishwoman who lives next door to Greene.  We talked to Fionula for this week’s podcast about her role.  I also wholeheartedly loved the film’s extensive use of Irish music, played by Michael Eskin, Athena Tergis and others; Patrick Cassidy composed the score.  Hear all three of them on this week’s podcast as well.  And the period pop songs of the early 70s were fun, too, not your usual suspects but songs like  “I’m Gonna Keep On Loving You” by Kool Blues.  The movie will be out on Blu-Ray in June; it’s well worth a look.  It’s even worth the drive to Teaneck, New Jersey to see it, if you’re in New York (Teaneck’s a cute little town, too).  Danny’s fascination with his Irish heritage is strongly stressed in the film too, and that’s new (Henry Hill in Goodfellas is also Irish, but the movie scoots right over it).  Trailer and more after the jump!

We first meet Danny as a child, an orphan brought up on the poor side of town.  He constantly gets picked on by Italian kids, and grows up envying the life of the mob.  As a young man, he’s a part of the Longshoremen union– and firmly on the side of right.  He argues with a corrupt union boss that it’s too hot for the men to keep working.  It’s not long before he stands up to the corruption completely and becomes the Union boss himself.  Only he ends up doing some work for the Italian mob– in order to bail out a friend’s gambling debt.  Well, nearly all Robin Hood figures start out as pacifists in the movies. And Stevenson pulls it off– his soulful blue eyes make you want to cuddle him; his strong arms sceam “superhero;” he sold it even in its hokeyness.  Even when he had to wear a stupid 70s moustache.

  Danny is self-taught; when he meets Joan, the girl who will be his wife (Linda Cardellini) he’s reading a history book on the Irish in the Great War.  But even early on there are things that don’t quite make sense– the Union boss’ threats to involve the police are convincing so it’s hard to understand why he backs off after Danny gets muscular.  But he does, and then we’re in Goodfellas territory, as Danny marries, buys a house, runs things.  Then he gets taken down on racketerring charges.  He cooperates with the police and is released early.  And the movie gets fuzzy.  Jonathan Hensleigh wrote and directed the film, and he tries to do too much.  What is the main storyline?

When Greene begins doing some enforcing work for Shondor Birns (played by Christopher Walken with deadpan sweetness) and the mob, is he sincere, or waiting to turn on them?  He also helps out Vince D’Onofrio, who plays John Nardi as a too-smart-for-his-own-good middle manager criminal, try to start a garbage union, which leads to a lot more explosions.   So is it that he would be a better mob boss? Along the way his wife leaves with his three daughters.  We never hear about her again. OK, so it’s not Goodfellas. The personal story is so shortchanged it doesn’t matter.   The heart of the movie is the shake down and take down of Greene the criminal– and one wishes the whole movie were about his elusiveness.   It begins with a failed attempt to kill him via car explosion, but then it flashes back.  Not all the flashbacks really pay off.  Of course, we do need to know why everybody’s after him:  Greene borrowed money from Shondor to open a restaurant, but Shondor borrowed it from the mob and the money goes awol.   Danny refuses to pay it back, since he never got it.  Lots of people die.  Some are friends, but the movie scoots over things so fast the emotional impact doesn’t land. 

Val Kilmer plays Mandinski, the detective who also narrates (why,is unclear), grew up with Greene and kind of likes him.  He’s wildly underused.  If you like the Sopranos, you’ll see a lot of faces you recognize (it’s as if there’s just a small pool of actor-mobsters that everyone draws on; the actors are good but it’s kind of distracting.  Hey!  It’s Bobby Bacala!)

Right in the middle of the film there’s a pivotal scene with Grace O’Keefe, played with fierce dignity by Fionula Flanagan.  She’s his neighbor, and she has told him “I know what you are.”  Greene bails her out when she’s about to be evicted, so she invites him in.  She makes the connection to him that he’s a warrior like the ancient Celts, and she gives him a talisman, a Celtic cross, that her own father gave to her.  This scene feels like nothing else in the movie.   I loved it.  It’s unusual and powerful. And it shows us everything we need to know about Greene, inside– his yearning for a home, for a mother figure, for a connection; the decency that informs his thuggishness; his ambition.
It made me care about Greene.   Damn it.  Just when we were about to break up.

Irrelevant observations

Four years after his family depart, Greene meets a girl.  On their first date, she takes her clothes off. Cut to:   a very jolly looking Greene going out the front door.   Heh.  Smartest portrayal of men after sex I’ve ever seen.

Greene and his nubile girlfriend want to open a cattle ranch, and try to borrow money from the mobsters who are after them.  A cattle ranch.  Seriously.  A cattle ranch.

I didn’t know a thing about Cleveland in the 70s.  It was fascinating.  The look of the film is gritty and seedy.  “This motion picture was filmed in Detroit, Michigan, USA.”

The falling action of the film is set to the trad tune “Bonny Portmore.”  It goes on for  about 20 minutes (felt like it anyway).   Although the movie credits Steven Randall Wothke, Nelson James Guy Stewart, Ebert Stanley Jones and Jeremy Freeman (members of the Rogues, who perform it) with the tune, it’s a trad tune. From the 18th century.  I learned it from Loreena McKennit’s The Visit.   The song is a lament for t the great oaks of Ireland.  It’s been used in Highlander, too, and recorded by Lucinda Williams.

Athena Tergis fiddles in the movie’s happy bits.  Her original tune “Seaport Lane” plays in the credits; she cowrote it with John Doyle.  They all recorded it in Boston before the Celtic Sojurn concerts in 2009; Chico Huff was there too and it’s named for the hotel.

Gwen Orel
About the Author

The only New York journalist who writes for both the Forward and Irish Music Magazine.