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The life of the gangster isn’t as glamorous in the movies as it once was. Sure the title characters of THE PUBLIC ENEMY, LITTLE CAESAR, and SCARFACE all met horrific deaths before the final fade-outs, but their lives of excess must have looked pretty great for depression audiences. And then the Hayes Office, the studios’ censorship board, cracked down. In James Cagney’s last great crime epic WHITE HEAT, his Cody Jarrett is a vicious psychopath. And later with the classic GOODFELLAS and TV’s “The Sopranos”, mob life was shown as dangerous, dirty work. The easy cash is never really easy. And so it is with KILLING THEM SOFTLY which re-teams star Brad Pitt with his THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES director Andrew Dominik. Few films have been as gritty as this “simple” score that goes bad in a big, big way.

The tale begins on the very mean streets of New Orleans in 2008. Frankie (Snoot McNairy) is fresh out of prison and ready for some fast cash (job placement is just not working for him). Low level mobster Johnny Amato (Vincent Curalta) wants to hire him as part of a robbery crew. He explains this “can’t miss” plan. Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) hosts illegal, secret big money card games attended by many local gangsters. A few years ago he gets the idea to hire a couple of thugs to rob his own game. Instead of getting a cut of the night, he (and his cohorts) take all the cash. After a brutal questioning from mob enforcer/hitman Dillon (Sam Shepard), Markie is believed innocent of involvement with the robbery. A couple of years later, after a night of high spirits, Markie laughingly admits to some pals that, yes, he did rob his own game. But he’s bringing in a lot of dough, so he’s given a pass. Amato believes that if the game is robbed again, all fingers will point to Markie. Much to Amoto’s chagrin Frankie brings in his pal Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), a dog-stealing wannabe drug dealer, to be join him in the stick-up. After the deal goes down, the local mob’s representative (Richard Jenkins) hires Dillon’s associate Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to get to the bottom of this fleeced card game. Jackie, aided by jaded East Coast pal Mickey (James Gandolfini), tries to track down and dispatch those responsible.

Of course the big alpha dog in this bunch of mutts is Mr.Pitt. With his slick pompadour and neatly trimmed goatee he’s the Mr. Cool of hit men. He’s also a hard-edged cynical guy who delivers a blistering monologue summing up his jaundiced view of the world in the film’s final scene. When he arrives at the thirty minute mark, Pitt’s assured, smooth performance carries the rest of the film. Before he enters, the film belongs to two guys that barely register on the cool meter. McNairy’s Frankie is a sleazy, motor-mouthed weasel that’s just looking to score and avoid heading back to “the joint”. He’s always going to be a mob foot soldier (or cannon fodder) and never a general. Hard to believe he’s the same actor who was so good as the most nervous “guest of Canada” in ARGO. Mendelson as Russell AKA “squirrel” is much more laid back, not doubt due to constant self-medication. You can almost smell the stench of flop sweat from the guy in addition to the constant canine aroma. The actor’s convinces us the he may be the absolute lowest of the lowlifes. The Mickey character may be too similar to Gandolfini’s signature role of Tony Soprano. He whines and complains in his big scenes with Pitt (he’s boozing too). There’s a real beaten-down Willy Loman vibe with Mickey that wears thin fairly quickly despite Gandolfini’s best efforts. His Sopranos co-star Curatola is very funny as the little man crafting big plans at the back of his dry cleaning shop. Jenkins also scores big laughs in his scenes relaying mob directives to Pitt. This guy sounds more like a mild-mannered accountant or mid-level manager. The always entertaining Liotta does a great comic riff on his GOODFELLAS persona. You just wish this easy-going guy wasn’t mixed up with these thugs (he’s perhaps the film’s most sympathetic character).

The film’s marketing team are selling this as a zany, crime comedy full of loveable screw-ups. Sure, there are some funny bits, but Dominik is aiming for something darker. With the opening image of McCain and Obama posters side by side, he’s striving to blend mob life with (still) current politics. Talk radio blares out of cars. TVs are constantly tuned to a news network or C-Span with then Senator Obama or President George W Bush (usually speaking on the financial lending collapse). The blaring media Greek chorus is sometimes heavy-handed, and most often distracting. Dominik does establish a dark mood with the constant grey skies and pounding rain (it’s coming down so hard we almost feel sorry for the two goons beating down a poor chump on the street). That ultra-violent smack-down is almost tame compared to the brutal gunplay (a slow-motion hit is almost balletic) There’s also a sequence of the two stick-up men trying to converse after “riding the H train” that goes from clever to tiresome quickly. KILLING THEM SOFTLY doesn’t achieve Coppola or Scorsese greatness, but features a few good performance that help prove what the old short subjects and 1950’s comic books tried to hammer home: crime does not pay.

3.5 Out of 5

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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