You can usually gauge what kind of movie you’re getting by the Val Kilmer that shows up. If he’s alert, the material is strong (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang). If he’s aiming for Brandoish self-indulgence, the production is a disaster and he’s simply going down fighting (The Island of Dr. Moreau). If he’s utterly bored, then the film is, in a sense, worse than a disaster: It fails to engage us on a good or bad level. In the opening minutes of Kill the Irishman, Kilmer, playing a detective not-so-hot on the trail of real-life mob boss and informant Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson), pipes up on the narration track, sounding like he’s on a cocktail of Xanax and horse tranquilizers. It’s an appropriate introduction to a monotonous, indifferently shot film that renders a potentially fascinating subject with as much brio as a doped-up Val Kilmer.
The Irish-American Greene should make for a rich character study: a union crook, loan shark enforcer and eventually boss, he clashed with the mafia bosses that ruled Cleveland in the 1970s, and ultimately semi-intentionally aided in their partial downfall. A brick shithouse brute, he nonetheless used his muscle on the evil, ranging from criminal masterminds to dickish bikers who play their music too loud. He frequently gave to the poor, including an Irish stereotype neighbor (Fionnula Flanagan) who, in one of the film’s worst scenes, addresses Greene’s not-so-latent humanity by musing that “there’s a bit of good in every Irishman.”
The characterization by director/co-writer Jonathan Hensleigh (The Punisher) stops there, and spends the rest of the film repeating what we already know. Stevenson’s performance follows suit: He’s simply a thug with sad eyes and a heart made of, if not gold, then a similarly noxious material. A better filmmaker would make this material either lurid or darkly comic, or both. Hensleigh plods from incident to incident, most of which involve Greene planting bombs in his enemy’s cars. Making a movie with more explosions than a Michael Bay product would be more acceptable if the minimal budget hadn’t gone mostly to period attire. It’s a movie that’s all dressed up with nowhere new to go. ■
2014 Films: The Year’s Most Likely