Monday, March 07, 2011

Union Made: Kill the Irishman

Mere collective bargaining was small beer for this duly elected union head. International Longshoremen boss Danny Greene was much more interested in racketeering, larceny, and embezzlement. He developed quite a following though. Also quite resilient, Greene was a tough mobster to whack, but it was not for a lack of trying, as the city of Cleveland witnesses firsthand in Jonathan Hensleigh’s Kill the Irishman (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Irishman’s opening scene perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the film. We watch Greene cruise down the street while the soundtrack pounds out a vintage 1970’s rock tune. As the muscle car turns a corner, the rock tune starts playing diegetically through the car’s radio, which suddenly sputters and pops. Just in the nick of time, Greene dives out of the exploding car, springs up and starts yelling those such-and-such will have to try a lot harder than that to kill him. If this sounds even slightly awesome, than Irishman is the film for you.

Surprisingly, Irishman is also quite topical, as it documents what being a union leader in 1970’s Cleveland entailed. After dethroning his featherbedding predecessor, Greene ran the ILA local (the same union from On the Waterfront) primarily as a cover for John Nardi, a local mobster who regularly plundered the container ships they were supposed to unload. When the operation generated too much heat, Greene took a simple embezzlement wrap. Though he agreed to become a confidential informant, Irishman clearly suggests he did little to justify the protection the Feds granted him.

Once released, Greene worked his way back up the organization ranks, starting as a collector for bookie Shondor Birns. Of course, when the mob decided to force the city’s independent garbage collectors to join a union they did not want or need, Greene was the perfect man for the job. Then there was a bit of a falling out. Thirty-six car bombs would rock Cleveland in the resulting gang war.

It is hard to go far wrong with a film that features Christopher Walken, Vincent D’Onofrio, Paul Sorvino, Robert Davi, and Tony Lo Bianco all playing gangsters and having an opportunity to chew up the retro scenery. Some might dismiss Irishman as a poor man’s Goodfellas, but Hensleigh understands how to deliver the goods. In fact, there are a number of cleverly executed scenes, including the incorporation of Brian Ross’s actual television reports from the time of the mob war. Production designer Patrizia von Brandenstein also earns props for nailing the 1970’s period details.

Though he does not exactly look like a leading man, Ray Stevenson has the right presence and intensity for Greene. Though somewhat restrained by their standards, Walken and D’Onofrio also steal plenty of scenes to keep their fans well satisfied. Frankly though, the out-of-shape Val Kilmer looks a little sad as Greene’s boyhood chum turned copper, Joe Manditski.

For those who were wondering, the credits do indeed carry the AFL-CIO and Teamsters seals of approval. Be that as it may, Irishman vividly captures a bloody episode in the history of American labor and organized crime that was not all that long ago. Still, even though it is based on a true story, one can’t help wondering when it is all said and done, why didn’t Greene and Nardi start taking the bus? A solidly entertaining meat-and-potatoes gangster film, Irishman is definitely worth seeing when it opens this Friday (3/11) in New York at the Landmark Sunshine.