“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” This famous piece of narration, from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, isn’t repeated in the new gangster drama Kill The Irishman, but it certainly feels implied. The ever-present voiceover, the oft-ironic mix of period pop songs and old standards on the soundtrack, the cast of gangster-genre regulars (including Paul Sorvino): All make the comparison unmistakable, and inevitably unflattering. But the biggest problem with Kill The Irishman isn’t that it rips off Goodfellas, because plenty of good films and television shows have ripped it off well. The problem is that writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh doesn’t do much beyond filling in the template; he’s telling the specific, true-life tale of mob decline in 1970s Cleveland, but every character and setpiece feels like it fell off a truck.
The Irishman of the title is Ray Stevenson, a pugnacious blue-collar dockworker who muscles his way into leading the corrupt longshoreman union, and gets into trouble with the law and the local mafia in the process. After a newspaper exposé ends his union tenure with a racketeering charge and a brief stint in jail, Stevenson takes work as a leg-breaker for mob bigwig Christopher Walken. But when Stevenson refuses to pay back a loan to one of Walken’s associates, Walken puts a hit out on him. Trouble is, Stevenson proves a maddeningly elusive target, dodging attempt after attempt. In the meantime, an old classmate turned city detective (played by Val Kilmer, who also narrates), stays in hot pursuit.
Adapted from Rick Porrello’s true-crime book, Kill The Irishman squanders an opportunity to get a fuller picture of the ’70s Cleveland mafia via the fly-in-the-ointment that broke the machine down. Though stocked with fine character actors—Walken fares best in a familiar turn, but Vincent D’Onofrio, Vinnie Jones, Fionnula Flanagan, and Sorvino are also on hand—the film skips lightly through the tense sit-downs and explosive bursts of violence expected from the genre, without giving much insight into what makes Stevenson or his rivals tick. (Linda Cardellini is particularly wasted in the shrill Lorraine Bracco role of Stevenson’s half-naïve/always-aggrieved wife.) It’s just another gangster movie for the pile.