Kill the Irishman, a long-gestating biopic about Cleveland mobster Danny Greene, starts with a bang: Greene is driving down the street when suddenly his car blows up.
Get used to it. Dozens of other vehicles (plus their unfortunate occupants) explode in the movie, including the one that killed Greene in his dentist's parking lot in October 1977. But this one, from 1975, didn't finish the job. "Is that all you got?" asks Greene (played by Irish actor Ray Stevenson, who was in The Book of Eli), as he brushes off debris.
Greene's story is a familiar one to Clevelanders. He was raised in an orphanage, took over a union, got tight with mobster John Nardi, was called the Robin Hood of Collinwood because of his generosity, pissed off lots of Italian guys, and kaboom.
Kill the Irishman picks up Greene's story in the early '60s, when he worked as a longshoreman on Cleveland's docks. The conditions were shitty — long days, hard work, little pay — and the bosses were even worse. Before long, Greene becomes a major pain in the ass for the big guys, just like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Somebody needed to budge, and Greene — with some help from his massive fists — attains the top seat of his union.
Stevenson plays Greene as a hard-ass, a womanizer, a rabble-rouser, a loyal friend — even a progressive; his mid-'60s views on diet and animal rights have much in common with modern-day liberals. But director and co-writer Jonathan Hensleigh (who penned Armageddon and The Saint, which starred Val Kilmer, who plays a cop in Kill the Irishman) doesn't turn away from Greene's hot temper or the fact that his hunger for power filled Cleveland's streets with blood.
"Back then, everything in Cleveland was run by the mafia," one character says early in the film. And in some ways, Kill the Irishman wants to be a straight-up gangster pic. But in so many other ways, it's a standard biopic that just happens to be about a gangster. There's plenty of blood and bullets. But there's also a strong story driving the proceedings.
As we're told at one point, 36 bombs exploded in Cleveland at the height of the gang war in 1976. That's a lot of bodies. Christopher Walken, Vincent D'Onofrio, Paul Sorvino, and some actors you'll probably recognize from The Sopranos all show up as gangsters. Most of them die.
There's plenty of local color here too. Even though Kill the Irishman was filmed in Detroit, the Motor City makes an acceptable stand-in for Cleveland. The movie's small budget gives it a gritty look, shading backroom scenes with looming dread. But it's Greene's riveting true story (based on a book by Lyndhurst Police Chief Rick Porrello) that explodes all over the screen.