Kill the Irishman, now playing in select cities with a large Irish contingent, is a true-crime biopic based on the life of Danny Greene, a notorious union boss-turned-racketeer whose ambition put him at odds with Cleveland’s (largely Italian) Mafioso in the 1970s. Fans of Goodfellas, Casino, and The Godfather saga will love the film’s “wiseguys” and other colorful characters—whose dicey relationships are marked by fierce loyalty and bloody betrayals.
Greene worked the Lake Erie docks in the late 1950s as a stevedore with the International Longshoreman’s Association before muscling his way to president of Local Union 1317. He went into business for himself after dodging embezzling charges in the early 70s, acting as enforcer to Jewish loan shark Alex “Shondor” Birns. Greene partnered with Teamster underboss John Nardi to commandeer Northeast Ohio’s trash-hauling business by ’76. But Greene became a “headache” for the established Cleveland mafia after refusing to pay back a loan-gone-wrong (the courier blew the money en route to Cleveland from New York, so Danny reasoned he wasn’t responsible for $75,000 he never actually received). Birns, in debt to the Gambinos, felt otherwise and puts a $25,000 price on the Irishman.
“You should be flattered,” Nardi tells his frustrated partner.
Numerous attempts on Greene were staged at the lakefront parks where the fitness-conscious crook exercised—and he emerged from most of them unscathed (to the consternation of local rivals and higher-ups in NYC). His luck finally ran out after a routine dentist appointment, when a “Trojan Horse” car bomb detonated in the vehicle next to his. Greene’s assassins thought it amusing their target just had a loose filling reset—but their careers wouldn’t last much longer, either.
The film takes some creative liberties, condensing the events reported in Rick Porrello’s 1998 book, To Kill the Irishman. Some streamlining was unavoidable, as the book chronicles not only Greene’s rise to power but the inception (and dissolution) of the Cleveland mob in the years following his death. It isn’t easy keeping track of the dozens of Italian names (and nicknames) in Porrello’s tome—and that’s not counting key witnesses, cops, FBI agents, and judges who became embroiled in the collapse of a generations-old dynasty. Producer Tommy Reid and director Jonathan Hensleigh effectively distill Greene’s life and impact on organized crime into a digestible—if not thoroughly enjoyable—hour and forty minute car-bomb opera.
Ray Stevenson (Punisher: War Zone, himself of Irish descent) is sublime as the ambitious title character. The burly, ruggedly-handsome actor bears some likeness to the real Danny Greene—especially once the hairpiece and fake disco-mustache are applied—and has the presence needed to play up the Irishman’s larger-than-life persona. Stevenson’s reading is almost sympathetic. We know Greene was a crook, and neither Stevenson nor Hensleigh sugar-coat that truth. Greene’s violent outbursts onscreen evince a surly disposition and hotheadedness few, if anyone, could quiet. Still, the killer adheres to what might be considered a warrior’s code. Perhaps gleaned from his thorough studies in Irish literature, this assumed nobility gave rise to an altruistic—even gentle—side. Greene was reputed to have been generous with friends and neighbors, and the film contains a montage wherein he and his “Celtic Club” soldiers donate to a church and distribute holiday turkeys to the poor—and the police.
“There’s good in all of us,” says Mrs. O’Keefe, after Greene pays the elderly Irishwoman’s back rent.
Greene isn’t so sure. He’s not exactly a churchgoing choirboy—yet he wears a Celtic cross around his neck for luck and becomes convinced the “Big Guy upstairs” is watching over him after he survives several attempted hits.
Ray Stevenson: Mustachioed, angry, and immune to firecrackers.
Vincent D’Onofrio (Pyle from Full Metal Jacket) is terrific as Greene’s partner in crime, a vending machine czar who resents his bosses after they pass him over and “make” a rival thug. Christopher Walken is delightful as Birns, the aging, happy-go-lucky numbers man who seems to prefer entertaining politicians at his restaurants more than getting his hands dirty. He’s affable until his messenger blows Greene’s money on drugs—at which point the famous Walken menace takes over. Paul Sorvino cameos as one of the top-notch mobsters in New York, to whom Greene and Nardi apply for another loan to start a cattle ranch in Texas. When the Don questions why he should fork out more money with the previous loan still owing, his Irish guest is characteristically ballsy:
“To get rid of me!” quips Greene.
Robert Davi plays Ray Ferritto, an out-of-town assassin contracted as a last resort to nail Greene. It isn’t a large role, but it’s poignant—and it’s cool having not one but two former 007 villains together in one picture (Davi starred in License to Kill; Walken played Max Zorin in A View to a Kill). Vinnie Jones (X-Men: Last Stand) does a scaled-down version of his Juggernaut character as Greene’s henchman.
Danny was married several times during his forty-four years and sired many children; the film accommodates only two wives and three kids. But it’s enough to showcase of bit of Greene’s family style—not that he was much of a father. The Irishman’s mother died shortly after giving birth and his alcoholic father skipped town thereafter; Greene was raised in an orphanage till age six and later minded by his paternal grand-dad.
But people don’t flock to mob movies expecting to see The Brady Bunch kids leaving horse heads in bedrooms. They come for drama, snappy dialogue, and over-the-top violence, all of which Irishman has in spades (or clubs, as the case may be). People are pummeled with fists, phone receivers, baseball bats, and golf clubs. At least two-dozen guys are blown up, shot, or stabbed. Only Greene himself is able to walk away from a smoldering wreck, living to be blasted another day.
“It’s gonna take more than a few firecrackers to kill Danny Greene!” he taunts.
Bravo, you charismatic Mick.
3.5 out of 5 Fists