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Film review: Pitt's cold assassin makes for a bleak 'Killing'

December 07, 2012|By Andy Klein
  • "Killing Them Softly" is an explosive gangster thriller starring Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta and Richard Jenkins.
"Killing Them Softly" is an explosive gangster… (Courtesy of the…)

In “Killing Them Softly,” Aussie director Andrew Dominik — who made the much praised 2007 Western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” — takes on yet another classic American genre, the mob film. Based on George V. Higgins's 1974 novel “Cogan's Trade,” the action has been transferred to 2008, around the time of the Obama/McCain bout. The movie was mostly shot in New Orleans, apparently masquerading as Boston (unless New Orleans is also near a town called Somerville and is populated entirely by people with northeastern accents).

Quentin Tarantino and Elmore Leonard are the obvious influences here; as in most of their stories, “Killing Them Softly” has no clear-cut protagonist. At first we spend time with very small-time hood Frankie (Scoot McNeary) and his Australian idiot buddy Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), who are convinced by older crook Johnnie (Vincent Curatola) to knock over a mob-protected card game run by sweet guy Markie (Ray Liotta).

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Frankie and Russell have just enough functioning brain cells to recognize this as a Very Bad Idea until Johnnie explains its brilliance: The game had already been hit a few years earlier; later, Markie admitted that he set up the heist himself. But time had passed, and everybody likes Markie, so nothing was done. Still, if the game gets robbed again, Markie will be the obvious suspect.

Johnny's right, and higher-ups start leaning on poor Markie, as well as looking for the two dopes. (If you really hate Ray Liotta, the scene where he gets beaten should satisfy your loathing; for the rest of us, it's just way too protracted and brutal.) They bring in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt, finally showing up 25 minutes into the film), a coldbloodedly efficient hit man; and Jackie in turn brings in some out-of-town help, in the person of Mickey (James Gandolfini), who turns out to be not quite as reliable as in the old days.

From this point on, the film sticks mostly with Jackie, with some necessary excursions elsewhere — necessary not just for plot reasons, but because there's nothing about Jackie that we can warm to (except, of course, that he's Brad Pitt). He's all business to such an extent that we never see anything of his personal life or learn much about his thinking. We get glimpses of his political worldview, which eventually represent the film's own attitudes.

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