Watching the first few minutes of "Killing Them Softly" feels like the dawn of a modern gangster classic, one teeming with stylized violence, brilliantly dialogue and a story for our recession-weary age.
You'll want to shower away the moral depravity but your synapses will be ablaze all the same.
Then writer/director Andrew Dominik and producer/star Brad Pitt tag team on us, turning a simple tale into a hopelessly cluttered one, filled with Tarantino-esque indulgences and, far worse, a crude subtext blasting American capitalism. Dontcha love getting lectured on greed by artists who earn a fortune while doing the lecturing?
"Softly" is riveting all the same, particularly when the clumsy political devices fade away.
Scoot McNairy ("Monsters") and Ben Mendelsohn ("Animal Kingdom") play a pair of very low-level hoods hired to roll a mobster poker game run by Markie (Ray Liotta). The savvy Markie rolled his own game years earlier to make some extra coin, and the crooks behind the new heist figure he'll get fingered if it happens again.
The robbery goes as expected, but the fallout is anything but predictable. Jackie Cogan (Pitt), a veteran enforcer hired to exterminate the thugs behind the stickup, sets an unusual plan in motion to finish the job. He enlists Mickey (James Gandolfini), a man whose appetites keep getting in the way. It all lets Dominik connect organized crime with the not-so-organized 2008 financial meltdown mop up.
"Softly" trots out one of the hoariest screen devices in play, having TVs and radios blaring in the background hammering home the screenwriter's talking points. Here, the story is set at the height of the Obama/McCain presidential race, a time when the candidates were scrambling to handle the financial crisis.
So when the armed thugs enter the poker game the television in the room is tuned to a news network - as if mobsters care more about headlines than, say, "Seinfeld" reruns.
Dominik's argument is simplistic, no doubt. Had he trusted his thesis without interrupting the story he could have sent the same message without wasting all those stamps.
Some sequences in the film are near masterpieces of tone and color, like when Liotta's character gets a whupping unlike any other seen on screen. Dominik's wit crackles when a crook tries to light his own vehicle on fire with disastrous consequences. Best of all is an exchange between Pitt and Gandolfini which starts out having nothing to do with the plot but lets us luxuriate in real, bitter dialogue delivered in masterful fashion.
"Killing Them Softly," based on George V. Higgins' novel "Cogan's Trade," sputters as Dominik ladles on the style. It's fine to greet Pitt's first screen seconds with Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around." A movie ruffian deserves nothing less. Later, when we see bullets flying in super slow motion through an unfortunate soul's brain, the screen flourishes have worn out their welcome. The same holds true for a simulation of a stoned out man's consciousness shown as an aperture opening and closing in jerky fashion.
The film wraps with one final lecture blasting America, this time delivered not via sound bite but Pitt's character. Even President Obama can't escape the film's hectoring, nor can one of the Founding Fathers who gets name checked during Jackie's cynical speech.
"Killing Them Softly" gets sidetracked not just by its stubborn polemics but its creator's unwillingness to edit his own creative impulses.