I happened across this one on Netflix, and decided to take a chance – mostly because I’m a Jim Thompson obsessive, and have not yet had the time to dip into the work of George V. Higgins, who is often mentioned in the same breath. Perhaps this would be a shortcut to figuring out if his stuff was worth reading. Well, the film started out very promisingly, with a great title sequence and strong audio/visual interplay. The two main characters (for the first half hour or so) are also appealing – scruffy, real, very scummy, but somehow charismatic. The plot is nothing special, the usual crime film boilerplate. Our two seeming protagonists, Frankie and Russell, are contracted by Johnny Amato (who might as well be Johnny Sack in the witness protection program) to knock over an illegitimate poker game run by Markie (Ray Liotta). Markie has already robbed his own game once, and barely got away with it, so Johnny figures if it happens again, suspicion will fall on Markie. That’s pretty much it. The robbery goes down, and then some unknown conglomerate of semi-legit higher-ups, fronted by Richard Jenkins, brings in hit men to take out our low-life friends. Well, it would be hit-men, but one of them, Dylan, played in a super-fleeting appearance by Sam Shepard, is too sick to handle the work, so it falls to Brad Pitt. He’s the real protagonist of the film, if we can say there is one, as after the initial robbery, our friendly scumbags fall by the wayside and the movie becomes a roundelay of criminals speaking bland dialogue, punctuated by over the top digital bloodshed.
There’s a lot wrong with this film. It’s like a retirement home for fake gangsters. There’s Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, the aforementioned Johnny Sack (Vincent Curatola), and I swear I saw a fat, nonspeaking Anthony LaPaglia in the robbery sequence (IMDB did not bear this out, however). It’s also a home for gangster movie cliches that should have been retired long ago. There’s the requisite slow motion violence. There’s the linking of action and violence to pop music. There’s the worn out theme of the gangster as the more honest reflection of American values, especially in comparison to legitimate businessmen. It feels like sub-par Goodfellas, especially in the slow motion sequences of violence, executed herein with the help of much digital augmentation, which sadly works to drop the impact to near zero. (Poor Ray Liotta’s death has him put through the grinder to the point that a crash test dummy would blush – or laugh, as I did). The musical pairings are all over the place temporally, from the 1920s to the 1970s, and the choices are so obvious they cause one to wince. Furthermore, the director decided to highlight the overarching theme of “gangsterism reflecting the realities of life in America” by setting the film during the 2008 election, and using long sections of political rhetoric as ambiance for the soundtrack. Yes, every hood in this universe listens to NPR and frequents bars with Hank Paulson on CNN. The last sequence even has Mr. Pitt spouting direct commentary on an Obama speech. Puhleeze. We got the point by the end of the title sequence, in which it was done best (formally speaking). The acting in the smaller roles is good, and Brad Pitt is pretty good too, but the rest of the cast is tired. Richard Jenkins, representing a weak sauce crime conglomerate, is annoying (although I suppose his character is supposed to be), as is James Gandolfini, who is retreading Tony Soprano and made me wish, as I did with Tony, that somebody would just shoot him already. Yes, it’s a rogues gallery of the weaselly, the whiny, and the lame. Perhaps worth viewing for the gritty setting, and for a little dark humor, but after the first half hour it gets dull fast.