By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — “I like to kill ‘em softly –- from a distance,” says the reluctant assassin played by Brad Pitt.
Killing Them Softly, the crime drama he fronts, takes the same approach.
This will please viewers who admire the ambitiousness of a genre item with something on its mind beyond the machinations of the plot, and perhaps displease aficionados of gritty, action-oriented crime thrillers.
This particular crime thriller is set in the shadow of the transition between the Bush administration and the Obama administration in 2008.
Yep, 2008 — the year when the economic collapse affected everyone, including America’s gangsters.
Brad Pitt stars as Jackie Cogan, a hired hitman and mob enforcer who is contracted to rub out a couple of hapless hoods who had the nerve and misfortune to rob a mob-protected poker game in an unidentified American city run by Markie Trattman, played by Ray Liotta.
Markie is a suspect as well, so Jackie is instructed to take him out too.
Jackie is hired by Richard Jenkins, who plays the mob’s accountant and liaison to the bosses who protect the game. But because Markie is a friend of Jackie’s, he begs off and the job is given to another hitman, played by James Gandolfini.
Can’t tell the players without a scorecard!
This is not a standard crime thriller from New Zealand-born Aussie writer-director Andrew Dominik (Chopper and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, starring Pitt), whose darkly comic screenplay is an adaptation of the 1974 George V. Higgins novel, Cogan’s Trade. The film has cerebral ambition but a certain degree of intellectual pretentiousness –- and relentlessness — as well.
Perhaps it makes a bit too much of the surface similarities between the mob’s gambling problems and the nation’s financial crisis. Perhaps it doesn’t quite earn its right to the capitalist critique. And perhaps too much of the text ought to be subtext.
But the splendid dialogue, razor-sharp and true to the environment, at least makes you listen. And want to.
The governing metaphor that Dominik offers is the maneuvering within a criminal syndicate standing in for the current state of our economy. So the narrative’s ultimate focus is on recession-era crime and its consequent punishment. Or, more to the point, lack thereof.
Throughout scene after scene of desperate lowlife criminals behaving to advance the generic plot, we notice in the background, coming from radios and television screens, elements of the 2008 political campaign in which Bush, Obama, and McCain offer false hopes for emerging from our economic crisis.
Pitt contributes a thoughtful, world-weary, low-key turn as the antiheroic, cold-blooded protagonist, dialing down his natural charismatic presence so as to fit in without sacrificing his authoritativeness.
And the ensemble really seems to relish delivering their crackling and often funny dialogue.
So we’ll mob 2½ stars out of 4 for the cynical and engrossing gangster thriller, Killing Them Softly, a thinly disguised critique of the current state of declining American capitalism that is also criminally entertaining.
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