Monday, March 21, 2016

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Kill the Irishman, Drunken Angel, and Animal Kingdom

Kill the Irishman (2011)

Director: Jonathan Hensleigh

It may not be a masterpiece of the gangster film genre, but this one does a lot of things well.

Kill the Irishman tells the tale of the Danny Greene, a very real Cleveland native of Irish descent who became embroiled with the Italian mafia in the 1970s, sometimes as a reluctant partner but more often as a brutally tough adversary. Greene started as a longshoreman working under a corrupt and callous union boss. Greene muscles his way into taking over the operation, as well as several other criminal activities including stealing cargo boxes and cutting the Italian mob in on the action. After a few slip-ups and stints in jail, Greene settles into steady work as a mob enforcer. That is, until he decides to take himself and his Irish comrades out from under the thumb of Italian mafiosi who answer to crime families in New York City. This set off a massive war between 1975 and 1977, which saw dozens of car bombs planted and numerous criminals killed by one another. Through much of it, Greene escaped unscathed, becoming a folk hero to the Irish community of Cleveland.

This is definitely not the typical gangster movie, which is a clear strength. While "real stories" have been told in film plenty of times, there are few real characters like Greene. The blue-collar local was, according to the movie, highly literate and exceptionally intelligent. He was also immensely tough, both physically and mentally, refusing to back down in the face of an imposing force of professional criminals and hitmen. His is a pretty gripping underdog tale, even if he's not exactly the most pleasant of fellows all of the time.

News footage of the very real and, apparently, exceedingly
tough Danny Greene. Not many of us would pull the
"shirtless TV interview" move, but Greene made no bones. 
The cast adds some serious punch. Ray Stevenson was just the man to play the larger-than-life Greene, with his massive physical frame, steely demeanor, and wicked Irish wit. The other notables include Vincent D'Onofrio, Christopher Walken, Vinnie Jones, and Val Kilmer (yes, Iceman was still acting as of 2011). On top of that, nearly every mafia member is played by actors whose faces you are likely to have seen in at least two or three other mafia movies, including Paul Sorvino. This well-seasoned crew goes about its business very well.

The movie does have a few faults. At times, especially during the first act, things seem to feel a bit rushed. For a movie that only clocks in at 107 minutes, I was surprised that some areas went under-explored. Some even result in loose plot threads, such as the conspicuous lack of retribution after Greene unceremoniously humiliates a powerful union boss and takes his job. An even larger omission is what follows Greene's agreement to turn into an informant for the FBI, which is never again raised after the bargain is initially struck. Also, a few of the characters, as well acted as they are, felt a touch incomplete. While the bond between Greene and his closest cohorts is clear, the details of their relationships are not always fleshed out. This is actually a movie that could have been better with an extra 10 or 15 extra minutes to fill in a few gaps.

I may not watch this movie again any time soon, but I would gladly recommend it to anyone looking for a solid gangster movie that falls a little outside of the familiar Godfather and Goodfellas mold.

Post Script: The documentary feature on the DVD reveals how Greene was not quite as admirable a figure as the movie suggests. He was a complex man, and he was generous to the Irish in his neighborhood, but he was certainly not above some nasty violence or even snitching to the FBI to get what he wanted. This only reinforces my belief that Greene's life had plenty to justify a longer movie.

Drunken Angel (1948)

Original Japanese Title: Yoidore tenshi

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Fascinating and atypical character study of gangsters. You just have to look past some dated acting techniques to appreciate it.

Drunken Angel focuses on Doctor Sanada (Takashi Shimura), an alcoholic physician who ministers to the denizens of a post-World War II slum in Tokyo. Sanada is a blunt, temperamental, and alcoholic doctor who is brutally honest with his patients, even the yakuza-connected thugs whom he occasionally stitches up. When Sanada one night removes a bullet from the current head thug, the handsome and strutting Matsunaga (Toshiro Mifune), he detects early signs on tuberculosis. When Matsunaga rebuffs the doctor's suggestion that he might have the potentially fatal disease, a struggle begins between Sanada and the very psychology of the "tough guy" gangster widely found within the yakuza.

The strength of the film lies firmly in the emotional and mental struggle between the doctor and the primitive instincts of those criminals at the top of the local food chain. This is a more profound variation on the typical gangster movie, which is far more often focused on grabs for power or the dynamic personalities of charismatic or powerful criminals. The fact that Sanada is not merely a do-gooder, but rather an ornery booze bag with his own problems, suggests just how warped the morality in places such as post-WWII Japan had become. The beaten-down state of the neighborhood is as much a character of this movie, as is the will of its denizens to survive in any way they can.

I couldn't ignore a typical feature of films from this era, especially Japanese ones: much of the acting is sadly dated and better suited to the stage than cinema. The overblown physical gesticulations and overall lack of subtlety continued in film until well into the 1950s, and Drunken Angel is no exception. While Shimura and Mifune are much more naturalistic, it only serves to accentuate how clumsy the performances by the entire supporting cast look in comparison. The heavy doses of unimaginative "yakuza tough guy" dialogue does nothing to help the matter.

As with all Kurosawa movies, this is one where the basic story and overall theme is likely to stay with you long after you watch it. This is fortunate, as I am unlikely to watch it again. A true student of cinema is likely to give it repeat viewings for its masterful camera work, but I am no true student. Instead, I could appreciate the look and emotional tones of the movie, just as I think anyone could and should.


Animal Kingdom (2010)

Director: David Michod

Though one critic called it "Australia's answer to Goodfellas," I found this one more like Australia's answer to At Close Range. This is a good thing.

Focusing mostly on Joshua "Jay" Cody, the movie follows this modern Australian high schooler just after his mother dies of a heroine overdose. With nowhere else to go, he returns to living with his grandmother and three uncles, all of whom are criminals of a rather serious nature, including armed bank robbery and drug dealing. Jay doesn't seem to have much of a will of his own, so he begins getting caught up in the wild larceny of his uncles. It isn't until several of those closest to him start to die that he is truly forced to make some very hard decisions about whom he will ally himself with.

This basic premise is quite similar to the excellent based-in-fact film At Close Range, though without the strong patriarchal figure portrayed by Christopher Walken. Nearly everything else is there, though. The aimless young man. The warped family that sucks him into their twisted lifestyles. The generally grim, fatalistic tone. Like many of the best gangster and crime movies, Animal Kingdom strips away all of the glamour often layered onto such stories, leaving us with its most horrible aspects.

This description surely suggests that this is not an "entertaining" movie, and it is not. I did not, however, find it a chore to watch. The plot is unpredictable, the action is very well-paced, and the acting is outstanding (this last was a bit of a surprise, as the only actors whom I recognized were Guy Pierce and Ben Mendelsohn). Seeing just how a young man at a frightening crossroads reacts to the craziness around him makes for intense and compelling viewing.

I don't know that I'll ever need to see this one again, but it is an excellent gangster film, and one that likely flew under the radar for being foreign, relatively low budget, and lacking "name" actors. Don't let that turn you off, though. In fact, there is an upcoming TNT television series of the same name, and inspired by the original Australian movie. I don't know if I'll bother with the show, but the movie is worth seeing for anyone.