Movie review: Killing Them Softly

From the November 29, 2012 edition

Ever wondered how the economic collapse of 2004 affected mafia hit men? Of course you did. “Killing Them Softly” finally addresses this burning question.

The bleak and cynical crime drama may have its flaws, but they’re generally outweighed by more than a few outstanding performances.

Director Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”) takes a 1974 Boston crime drama and relocates it to 2004 New Orleans, with a heavy dose of political overtones.

When two low-level thugs (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) rob a mob-protected card game, the illicit economy is threatened. After all, you can’t have just anyone robbing illegal gambling events.

Enter Jackie Coogan (Brad Pitt), a cool-as-a-cucumber mob enforcer sent to restore order (or disorder, as it were).

“Killing Them Softly” isn’t likely to find a place among the very best of mob fare — appearances by Ray Liotta (“Goodfellas”) and James Gandolfini (“The Sopranos”) are reminders of that.

Opening the film over a Barack Obama campaign speech and sprinkling news reports from the bailout of the financial sector, Dominik is less than subtle about connecting events to a pervasive cynicism of how this country really works.

Pitt’s Jackie is both methodical and a little weary, a man who sees the games that are being played. There’s a dysfunctional morality to his thinking — he suggests killing a man to spare him a beating, since Jackie considers the man’s death a foregone conclusion.

This isn’t Pitt’s showiest performance, but he displays the cool, effortless charm of a Robert Redford. Gandolfini, on the other hand, brings the explosiveness you might expect. He’s not far removed from Tony Soprano, but I doubt fans will complain.

“Killing” is a grown-up film, heavy with dialogue and punctuated with blasts of violence. Crime film fans should probably give it a shot. Those on the fence will find better options right now.