Based on the nonfiction book “To Kill the Irishman: The War That Crippled the Mafia” by Rick Porrello, Kill the Irishman is a compelling walk through Cleveland’s criminal underbelly during the 1970s and an informative look at a man who brought down the hammer on the mafia’s golden age. To seasoned consumers of gangster movies, Kill the Irishman will likely trigger bouts of déjà vu due to its conventional construction, but it’s hard to begrudge the film of this since it’s a mostly accurate retelling of a true untold story (plus it concerns the Cleveland mafia, thus giving Las Vegas and New York a well-deserved break). Sure, the film is no Goodfellas or The Godfather, but it’s a solid motion picture on its own terms thanks to astute direction, engaging performances and impressive production values (even despite the low budget).
Danny Greene (Stevenson), a proud Irishman and a self-proclaimed descendant of Celtic warriors, started his adult years as a salt of the earth working man before moving his way up the ranks to a union boss. Throughout the late 1960s and ’70s, Greene also made a name for himself in organized crime, forming a gang of enforcers, climbing into bed with the Italian mafia, and making enemies at every turn. Greene developed into somewhat of an icon around his local neighborhood, becoming known as the “Robin Hood of Collinwood.” The title of Kill the Irishman refers to the years-long struggle for his enemies to eliminate Greene, who managed to elude multiple assassination attempts and was notoriously difficult to kill.
The script (written by director Jonathan Hensleigh and Jeremy Walters) adheres pretty faithfully to the historical record for the most part, though composite characters were created and some things were excluded (for instance Greene’s military service). Indeed, this is a case of the true story being so fascinating that not a lot of tampering was necessary for its translation to the screen. Hensleigh and his co-writer aimed to cover as much as possible with Kill the Irishman, hence they packed a lot of material into a slim 105-minute runtime. Alas, this denotes the production’s major shortcoming: The details of Greene’s life are too compressed and poorly fleshed-out. As a result, the disjointed, messy narrative jumps from one time period to another without permitting sufficient room to explore the incidents in any great depth. And due to the nimble pacing, it’s difficult to get a complete grasp of the life and exploits of Danny Greene. A story like this demands a Scarface sized runtime.
Nevertheless, Kill the Irishman is a home run from a technical standpoint. Hensleigh (who directed The Punisher; the one without Ray Stevenson) is a strong action director, and therefore the film contains a number of exciting confrontations pervaded with energy and a refreshing brutality suitable for the material. But the production’s biggest asset is the immaculate recreation of 1970s Cleveland — classic American cars fill the streets, and the frame constantly bursts with ’70s-style clothing, hairstyles, and interior décor. The filming locations afford the material a very authentic look and feel, not to mention the color palette is retro and ’70s-looking. Further amplifying the magic is the inclusion of several snippets of authentic news footage from the era, and a soundtrack packed to the gills with retro ’70s rock and funk tunes.
Ray Stevenson (star of Punisher: War Zone and TV’s Rome) was a magnificent pick for Danny Greene. Stevenson’s performance is charismatic, authoritative, convincing and brimming with intensity — he sounds like he genuinely means each line he delivers. The end of the film even contains a fleeting glimpse of the real-life Danny Greene via archive footage, but viewers might not notice because of how spot-on Stevenson’s portrayal is. The supporting cast, meanwhile, is filled with talent — there’s Christopher Walken, Vincent D’Onofrio, Val Kilmer, Robert Davi, Vinnie Jones (sporting an embarrassing Irish accent), Paul Sorvino, and Tony Darrow, just to name a few. All of the actors look, talk and feel like real gangsters and Mafiosos, once more augmenting the production’s sense of authenticity. Some viewers may be disappointed that many of the actors were essentially given glorified cameos, but their presence is nonetheless appreciated and the performances are strong right down the line.
Covering a period of about 15 years in the life of Danny Greene, Kill the Irishman is more or less an episodic, streamlined highlight reel of the life of this colorful historical figure. Nevertheless, the cast is A-list (led by an engrossing Ray Stevenson) and the technical contributions are solid, making the film a worthy addition to the oversaturated gangster genre that’s well worth checking out.