The crew’s been to this gangster’s paradise before, capiche?

There’s a familiarity that pervades almost every facet of Killing Them Softly. Ray Liotta running a scam, feeling the pinch from his superiors; James Gandolfini breathing heavily through his nostrils (albeit it in a largely irrelevant role), huffing and puffing his way through the dialogue like some prize bull on downers; Brad Pitt doing his light-fingered spiel, managing to do the clean up without getting his hands dirty – a golden boy – dancing above the mess.

That’s a double-edged sword, for while there’s an element of welcome celluloid nostalgia to be enjoyed from watching this medley of greatest gangster hits, it’s all so uncomfortably derivative. There’s a creeping sense that writer/director Andrew Dominik has stolen much more than he’s created. At the very least, his casting and his soundtrack lack so little imagination as to be groan-inducing. It’s like watching a Martin Scorsese film shot by Michael Mann and written by Quentin Tarantino – which might be interesting, except that all three would be doing impersonations of themselves. That is to say, that while the film looks the part with its textural lighting and autumnal colours, there’s no escaping that this is all a second-hand and violent regurgitation of something you’ve already seen: at best, lovingly crafted nostalgia: at worst, spotty-faced fanboy filmmaking.

Despite Dominik’s attempts to persuade you otherwise, the plot is minimal – please read the following aloud, adopting an East Coast mafioso accent as you go: It goes down like this: Markie’s place sees a lotta poker action. One day Markie (Liotta) clocks all the paper flying around his joint and figures: who’s gonna suspect him knocking off his own joint, right? So he fixes it all up and hires a couple a fresh mooks to drop by, wave their pieces around and bag the green. Bada-bing. Runs like a dream. Only snag being, Markie’s got a big mouth. He can’t help himself: starts sounding off about how he ripped off his joint. Before long, da whole hood is talkin’. That’s when The Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) starts cookin’ up a hit on Markie’s place, all on his own figurin’ since everybody’s still yabberin’ about it, finger o’ blame’s sure to point at Markie. Don’t matter whether it makes sense or not, it’s what they’ll say on the street. Course, the Squirrel don’t do his own laundry, if you take my meaning. That’s where these two deadbeats Frankie (McNairy) and Russell (Mendelsohn) come into the picture …

What follows this initial set-up becomes protracted beyond all reason, and redundant plot complications hide the paper-thin premise. Dominik, with all his romantic stylings, would have you believe that 2008 – dressed up to look more like 1978 with all the leather jackets, brylcreem, Mustangs and Cadillacs you can wave a piece at is enough to make you actually give a f*@$. There’s not one character to care about. Perhaps the inclusion of a single female character might have provided perspective – a refreshing glass of ice water in this, a desert of variations on tired, testosterone-fuelled clichés.

If there is anything to recommend the film by way of originality, it must be Dominik’s attempt to tell a gangster story about NY hoodlums through the spectrum of our current economic meltdown at the moment the news is breaking, thus comparing these gamblers and small-time crooks to US big business and corrupt bankers. The McCain/Obama election unravels via billboards, on car radios and in snippets of TV news in bars. The intention shows there was the potential to provide the film with some of the originality and depth that it so badly needs – but alas, it never really seems to gel in any meaningful way, and certainly not in Pitt’s concluding monologue, which despite an attempt to summarise the film’s subtext, feels contrived. Fuggeddaboutit.

Killing Them Softly (15)

Dir: Andrew Dominik; US crime/drama, 2012, 97 mins; Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Scoot McNairy, Ray Liotta, Sam Shepard, Vincent Curatola, Ben Mendelsohn
Premieres December 7
Playing nationwide

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