Clevelanders know Danny Greene as the Irish mobster who was blown to bits when a car exploded in a Lyndhurst parking lot in 1977. But Jonathan Hensleigh, the director and co-writer of Kill the Irishman, a Greene biopic opening this week, sees a different man. "I don't think he was a sociopath," he says. "He had a specific moral and ethical code."
Greene's fatal flaw was his hunger for power, says Hensleigh. And that ruthless ambition is on full display in the movie, which stars The Book of Eli's Ray Stevenson as Greene, Val Kilmer as the cop who both befriends Greene and wants to bring him to justice, and Christopher Walken as rival gangster Shondor Birns.
Kill the Irishman traces Greene's life from the early '60s — when he worked as a longshoreman on Cleveland's docks — through that fateful day in October 1977, when Greene was assassinated after a car parked next to his exploded in the parking lot near his dentist's office.
Along the way, Hensleigh and co-writer Jeremy Walters (working from the book by Lyndhurst Police Chief Rick Porrello) chronicle Greene's rise from union boss to associate of gangster John Nardi (played by Vincent D'Onofrio) to becoming both a neighborhood hero and a power-hungry tough who rubbed out anyone who got in his way.
"It's a spectacular story," says Hensleigh, who also directed The Punisher but is best known as the screenwriter of Armageddon and Die Hard: With a Vengeance. "I didn't know the specifics of the story until I read Rick's book. I tried to read everything that was written about him at the time. But a lot of it is based on street rumors, anecdotes, and legend. The historical record is skimpy."
Obviously, Cleveland plays a big part in Kill the Irishman. Only thing, it's actually Detroit standing in for Cleveland. The monetary benefits offered by Michigan helped offset the film's tiny budget. "I would have loved to shoot the picture in Cleveland," says Hensleigh. "We worked as hard as we possibly could to replicate Cleveland."
The movie certainly captures the look of the era. Guys walk around sporting manly mustaches, and they drive cars the size of city blocks. Kill the Irishman is more biopic than gangster pic, but there's plenty of mob-style murder to keep genre fans happy. Hensleigh is just relieved the movie is getting a proper release, since it looked like it would be going to straight to DVD at one point.
"I truly fell for the story," he says. "I think Danny Greene was quintessentially American. The history of America is a violent one, particularly the history of immigrants jockeying for power. It's emblematic of the entire 20th century. Did he commit murder? Did he commit crimes? Was he living outside the law? Yes. Was he an admirable man? Not necessarily. But at least his crimes are understandable. And that's a big difference."