Director Jonathan Hensleigh assembled the Movie Tough Guy Junior Varsity All-Stars and to tell the story of Danny Greene, a first-generation Irish-American who spent much of the 1970s at war with the Cleveland mafia. Seeing as you’ve probably never heard of him, you can likely guess how that worked. Nonetheless, “Kill the Irishman” spins a great yarn about a man reaching for the American Dream with his fists and a gun.
Ray Stevenson, the heavy in recent films like “The Other Guys” and "The Book of Eli,” stars as Greene, a man who started out as a union man on the docks of Cleveland, before “working” his way up to union boss and eventually becoming a renowned gangster. Stevenson attacks the role with a strapping build and tough-guy swagger, snarling, snorting and swinging away at every turn. With his ridiculous wisp of a comb over, the glorious porn-stache and faint remnants of a brogue, Stevenson paints a rich portrait of the kind of violent monster only a film fan could love.
The cast is loaded with talent: Christopher Walken as numbers runner Alex “Shondor” Birns; Paul Sorivino as Tony Salerno, the head of the Genovese crime family; Vinnie Jones as Greene’s enforcer, ex-Hell’s Angel Keith Ritson, Val Kilmer as Joe Manditski, a Cleveland cop who befriends Greene; and most magnificently, Vincent D’Onofrio as John Nardi, mobster and the lone Italian with whom Greene got along. D’Onofrio’s performance is a frustrating reminder of what a great career he could have had. His accent, cadence, facial expressions, lumbering gait are all fantastic--the guy never cheats a scene.
There is a great deal of fisticuffs, shootouts, and car bombings, as befits a fill with the word “Kill” in the title, but Hensleigh keeps things from getting stale. The onslaught of violence is broken up by the grim humor in Jeremy Walters’ screenplay. Hensleigh also owes a huge debt of gratitude to his art department who got the cars, hair, clothes and sets just right.
As with any biopic, the film is full of composites, falsehoods, half-truths and fabrications, but “Kill the Irishman” gets a bump in verite with the use through out of actual news coverage—featuring the likes of Brian Ross (now with ABC) and David Brinkley--Greene’s accident, peaking in the summer of 1976, when three dozen explosions rocked the city of Cleveland as gangsters battled it out.
“Kill the Irishman” doesn’t re-invent the mob genre, but a great cast and story make for a good time that packs plenty of punch and some dark laughs.