A mob movie? Set in Cleveland?
Truth being stranger than fiction, that's exactly what Kill the Irishman is about. This film by Jonathan Hensleigh (who wrote Armageddon, Die Hard With a Vengeance and several others) chronicles the war between mobsters that threatened to tear Cleveland apart in the 1970s.
Ray Stevenson plays Danny Greene, a dock worker with larcenous impulses who climbs the ranks of his union by being tougher, bolder and just plain more willing to mix it up than his opponents. While Kill the Irishman isn't a great movie, it's a juicy one, full of action, big dramatic moments and humor.
Told mostly in flashback, it begins with a day in the mid-1970s when Greene narrowly escapes an attempt on his life. His car nearly blown up underneath him, he emerges from the smoking wreckage, shaking his fist and vowing vengeance.
From there, Hensleigh takes us back to Greene's origins as a ne'er-do-well dock worker who rebels against the inhumane conditions in which he and his pals are forced to work. When the union bosses - who ostensibly are meant to be watching out for their welfare - ignore their complaints, Greene decides to get into the election for union boss himself.
Which, of course, leads to physical threats and confrontations. But the union guys don't understand just how daring Greene is - and how willing to give as good as he gets. He gives a beatdown to the union's biggest goon, then physically manhandles the boss (a wormy Bob Gunton).
Still, there are bigger bosses to satisfy. But when Danny meets with the Italian mobster, John Nardi (Vincent D'Onofrio), who controls the labor unions, he proves to be an extremely willing partner. Greene will run the union and help Nardi's crew steal whatever they need from incoming shipments, in exchange for his own cut.
When local law enforcement cracks down and tosses Greene out of the union job, he becomes an enforcer for Nardi and a free agent, looking for a business - legitimate or otherwise - to get involved in. But his increasingly visible violent activities ultimately alienate his wife (Linda Cardellini).
Greene's dream is to open a big, fancy restaurant. But that proves to be his downfall - that and his own unshakeable sense of fairness. He gets involved with mob fixer Shondor Birns (Christopher Walken), who offers to help him borrow the big cash infusion he needs from the Mob in New York. But the couriers bringing the money from New York are hijacked and the cash stolen.
Greene is upset about that - but he's furious when Birns tells him that, as far as the New York mob is concerned, the lost money is Greene's debt to pay. Greene rebels, triggering a mob war that extends from Cleveland to New York.
Hensleigh's sense of the '70s mostly extends to hairstyles and old cars, along with the garish fashions (arrgh -- polyester!) of the period. There's another period-specific detail: This mob war is fought with car bombs, rather than guns.
Otherwise, Kill the Irishman tends toward the episodic, moving forward in a herky-jerky fashion from event to event. It also has an uncomfortable voiceover narration, which is offered by a cop named Joe Manditski (Val Kilmer), a childhood friend and longtime nemesis of Danny Greene.
Still, Stevenson is such a free-swinging force of nature that he pulls you into Greene's story, making it an enjoyably involving tall tale that has the advantage of being improbably true. He's supported by a cast that includes the always quirky Walken, a sleepy-eyed D'Onofrio, a volatile Steve Schirripa and a viciously imperious Tony LoBianco.
Kill the Irishman is a movie with a lot of meat on the bone, even if some of it is tough or stringy. It's not fancy, but it's always tasty.