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'Killing Them Softly' tells gritty crime tale

10:15 PM, Nov. 29, 2012
Brad Pitt stars in 'Killing Them Softly.'
Brad Pitt stars in 'Killing Them Softly.' / The Weinstein Company
James Gandolfini stars in 'Killing Them Softly.' / The Weinstein Company

‘Killing Them Softly’

Star rating:★★★
(Good)
Rated: R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use.

Richard Jenkins stars in 'Killing Them Softly.' / The Weinstein Company
Brad Pitt stars in 'Killing Them Softly.' / The Weinstein Company

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Andrew Dominik doesn’t know when to stop.

In “Killing Them Softly,” he’s crafted a gritty, entertaining (if incredibly violent) crime film, with intriguing performances by Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins and James Gandolfini, among others. Dominik, who also wrote the script, based his film on the novel “Cogan’s Trade,” by the much-admired writer George V. Higgins. It’s like a grungier version of a Guy Ritchie film.

And then Dominik decided to throw in a few too-easy shots at American-style capitalism. Not that it’s above criticism. But when he interrupts slowly searing exchanges with cut-ins from George Bush trying to explain the economic freefall (the film is set in 2008), or speeches by then-Sen. Barack Obama promising hope and change as he runs for president, the movie becomes more heavy-handed, a hammer blow when a gentle nudge would have done the trick.

Yes, yes, criminals on Wall Street crippled the economy, and here we are watching criminals. Well, how about that. Don’t worry, this kind of thing doesn’t negate everything else. It just cheapens it, making the film less dynamic than it otherwise might have been.

The film opens with Johnny “The Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola, Johnny Sack from “The Sopranos”) plotting what he thinks of as the perfect crime. A few years back Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) robbed his own mob-protected card game and got away with it, but eventually bragged about his score. The Squirrel figures if he robs the game again, suspicion and vengeance will fall immediately on Markie. Decent plan, maybe, but he hires Frankie (Scott McNairy), a sad little hood, and fidgety junkie Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), to carry it out. What could possibly go wrong?

The unseen mob bosses call in Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to clean things up.

Jackie suggests bringing in Mickey (Gandolfini), a hit man he’s worked with in the past. But when Mickey arrives he is a bloated, drunken wreck, probably going to jail soon on gun charges. It’s a remarkable performance, as if Gandolfini removed all the charm that made Tony Soprano so captivating (and, yes, likable), leaving only the selfish, ugly side of a psychopathic killer behind.

The brutality is striking and, on at least one occasion, kind of artsy. At times it’s fitting, at times overdone. But say this for the film: Whatever glamor we often associate with movie mobsters has been leached from it. America may be just a business, as Jackie reminds us in a closing soliloquy on Election Night. All too often in “Killing Them Softly,” it’s an ugly one.

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