Friday, October 21, 2011

Hard as steel in Pittsburgh. And Cleveland.

This is from the opening sequence of Kill The Irishman (2011), a hard-nosed, hard-boiled, hard-knuckled semi-noir gangster picture set in, of all places Cleveland (because it is based on a true story that happened there). This is not an innovative or surprising movie. It has Paul Sorvino and Vincent D'Onofrio playing Italian mobsters, which is hardly a new idea. (I think you should be able to just buy ready-made clips of Paul Sorvino playing a big mafia don and just paste them into your movie without troubling Mr. Sorvino to come to your set or read your script, which seems hardly necessary in the circumstances.)

Irishman falls solidly in the category of "underdog union stiff who becomes union leader then becomes mad dog gangster who's nice to kids and old ladies." Jimmy Cagney would have been right at home here. But Cagney would also have to acknowledge that Ray Stevenson, who has been a big, solid, completely dependable, yet surprisingly nuanced actor in international film and television projects for a while is, in this film at least, a big fat movie star. He is utterly riveting, and makes all the contradictory parts of the character fit together. (Speaking of big and fat, Val Kilmer is becoming frightening. Doesn't he have any friends or family who will tell him what is happening to him? He is becoming so puffy, he is losing control of the facial muscles required for acting.)

Here's what you need to know about Kill the Irishman: a lot of big guys hit each other in the face hard, and an incredible number of bombs go off. Mostly car bombs (one of which provides Christopher Walken with perhaps his best movie death ever), but at one point the baddies take an entire house out. And as best as I can tell, it's neither a miniature, nor CG. This relatively low-budget movie blows a real house up. Or down, as the case may be. It's worth the price of admission. Other than the lack of nudity, Joe Bob Briggs would LOVE this movie. I appreciate that it stays hard and tough straight to the end. They don't round the edges off the protagonist, Danny Greene, nor even elevate him to a tragic hero. He gets a lot of people blown up until someone blows him up. To me, movie-wise, that's money in the bank.

Speaking of money in the bank, that's on the mind of Russell Crowe in The Next Three Days (2010), who, in one of the best sequences, does not rob a bank. Yes, yes, I know, the movies are filled with scenes of people not robbing banks. But this one is really fine, especially since there is not one word of dialogue about anybody robbing a bank. But his decision, his plan, and his reconsideration of that plan are all conveyed without a word. Bravo, director Paul Haggis, who as a writer, would have been expected to spew words at such an important point, only Mr. Haggis seems to understand how movies work.

No, I don't buy that Pittsburgh community college teacher Crowe can suddenly become a resourceful, lightning-reflexed commando-spy as he rescues his wife from a life sentence for murder. No, the idea that a couple running from the law would take along their 6-year-old child is a bit of a strain. And using Liam Neeson in a single scene to deliver some exposition is both insulting and a waste of natural resources. But the movie goes at a good clip, especially in the second half and Russell Crowe has the movie-star gift of being able to clearly represent what he is thinking without a word or a gesture, which is useful because the story does not give him anyone he can share his plans with (a pretty bold choice in itself). Much of the fun of the first half is just wondering, "what the devil is he doing that for?" and awaiting the pay-off you know, given the iron laws of film narrative, will be coming.

Here's another thing to like: Elizabeth Banks really seems as though she would be worth it. If your choice was whether or not to break the law, risk life and limb and go into permanent exile in order to save say, Sandra Bullock or even Katherine Heigl, from an unjust punishment, you might have to give it some thought. Maybe it's just me (and I don't even care for blondes much), but Elizabeth Banks, who has been such a loyal buddy in all those Judd Apatow movies, seems worth the risk. And I don't think that's a little thing, as movies go.

I do wish the movie had given us a more interesting head cop to chase Crowe, although perhaps casting a star in that role would have been cliche, and, with an ensemble of unknowns one can enjoy the illusion that these somewhat bumbling cops are a long-standing team who really know each other. Brian Dennehy, the tight-lipped father of the tight-lipped Crowe (good thing these actors are not paid by the word), has, unlike the universe, stopped expanding, and now looks ill, for the opposite reason that he used to look ill. Perhaps a completely healthy-looking Dennehy would be disturbing.

Neither film was very successful. I suspect Kill The Irishman didn't get the marketing to overcome the fact that it's star is not yet established as a leading man and the true story it is based on is neither well known, startling or heart-warming. The wrap-up of The Next Three Days was probably unsatisfying for American audiences; it is established that one smart cop has figured out what really happened and that Elizabeth Banks is innocent, but he fails to uncover the exculpatory evidence which is indeed yet to be found and we presume that Crowe, Banks and son will be forever on the run, which is sad-making for most people.

But they are both kick-ass movies that move and keep moving for most of their running times, and better yet, both feature generous authentic helpings of flyover country which is so rarely on display in mainstream American film. Maybe somehow people in the future will figure out that not everything in America happened in New York or Los Angeles.

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