Popcorn Picks: Killing Them Softly

By Mike Crisolago

Starring: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Vincent Curatola, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Sam Shepard

Director: Andrew Dominik

Genre: Crime

Choice Quote: “America’s not a country. It’s just a business.” – Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan

What’s it about?: Markie (Liotta) is a mobster who arranged to have one of his own high-stakes card games robbed, netting the stolen cash for himself. He later admitted it, and while his fellow hoods were more forgiving than you might expect, they didn’t forget. Now, Johnny (Curatola), a crooked dry cleaner, decides to hold up another of Markie’s card games, knowing that the players won’t believe Markie when he denies involvement. After the second heist the mob enlists Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to hunt down those responsible while sending a message that, ironically, when it comes to this crowd, crime does not pay.

Is it any good?: Killing Them Softly is hit-and-miss, with standout performances (Pitt, Gandolfini, Liotta) stunted by a plot that lacks any real excitement beyond Johnny’s heist.

The film, based on the 1974 George V. Higgins novel Cogan’s Trade (though updated and set in New Orleans against the backdrop of the 2008 presidential election), is both a visually and thematically bleak representation of a country fallen on hard financial times. Evidently, the mob feels the pinch too.

Pitt (who previously teamed with director Andrew Dominik in 2007’s celebrated The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) plays a gritty, raw, and clever Cogan, even if his character occasionally has to dodge clichés as if they’re enemy bullets (a Johnny Cash song playing as the rebellious lead drives his beat-up car along the highway – how novel!). He’s a tough guy but he can talk, and his dialogue steals the show whether discussing life with a fellow hit man or putting the squeeze on his intended prey. As an added bonus, this performance is a welcome distraction from his Chanel No. 5 commercials.

Liotta, for his part, elicits sympathy as the aging mobster Markie who’s past comes back to haunt him. He’s likeable in a “he’s clearly not too bright so you hope the bad guys cut him some slack” sort of way. Gandolfini, meanwhile, played the testosterone-infused Tony Soprano for so long that it’s easy to forget how great a character actor he is. As Mickey, he’s like Tony if Tony’s life was spiraling out of control, self-medicating with a prescription of alcohol and prostitutes. The only regret is that he’s not featured more prominently.

And speaking of The Sopranos, the film features a mini-cast reunion with Gandolfini, Curtatola and Max Casella, though what the plot really needed was an infusion of Sopranos creator David Chase’s knack for riveting storytelling.

The plot, which centres on the hunt for the robbers – Johnny and his two henchmen, a low-life associate named Frankie (McNairy) and his heroin-addicted pal Russell (Mendelsohn) – shows promise but ultimately doesn’t live up to it. There’s little in the way of suspense – surprising considering it’s a crime film with a hit man hunting three crooks. The reason is because these bad guys are too low rent to be taken seriously.

First, don’t bother asking why Markie didn’t end up in concrete shoes at the bottom of the river after he admitted to stealing money from a bunch of mobsters (the excuse given is because everyone likes him). I bet you didn’t realize mob guys were so forgiving when they’ve had their pockets picked. Second, Johnny wants to pull off this heist, but relies on a street thug and his drug-addict partner to get the very sensitive job done properly. What could go wrong?

Dominik’s camera effects, however, are at times brilliant, including Russell’s descent into a heroin-induced trance and a fantastic slow-motion sequence of bullets piercing a car window and, eventually, a poor sucker’s temple. There’s also the cinematography that paints New Orleans as a post-economic collapse wasteland. And the soundtrack features a good mix of The Velvet Underground (“Heroin”) with the likes of Barrett Strong (“Money (That’s What I Want)”) and Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards (“It’s Only a Paper Moon”), though it should probably also include the inordinate number of sound bites from then-Senator Barack Obama and President George W. Bush talking the economy, bailouts, and hope.

Aside from this, and a few select performances, the film drags to an unsatisfying end. The viewer watches for over an hour and a half only for the climax to fizzle out. It’s like expecting a fireworks display and getting a handheld sparkler in return. Perhaps the film should be called Killing Them All Too Slowly Considering They’re Bumbling Crooks. At least then the payoff wouldn’t seem as underwhelming when it comes.

Can I bring my kinds and grandkids to see it?: Lots of guns, blood, violence and swearing. Mom and dad won’t be happy with the new words Junior learns after watching this.

See it in theatres or rent it?: Rent it.

Overall Popcorn Rating: 2.5 kernels out of 5

Killing Them Softly opens today