Andrew Dominik’s “Killing Them Softly,” with a cast full of big names and a barrel full of clichéd moves pulled from the last 20 years of crime films, joins a long line of movies that wouldn’t be the way they are if not for “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” Now, I’ve never been one to say that derivative equals bad. Many really, really good films were in no way inventive. But “Killing Them Softly” is just too derivative. Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini and Richard Jenkins do bring name credibility, and the movie does have an imaginative backdrop that’s easily the most interesting thing about it. But too often, it feels like a cheap imitation of a real modern gangster movie.
In the film’s opening minutes, three criminals are plotting to rob a mob card game run by prominent gangster Markie Trattman (Liotta). Low-class, small-time hoods Frankie and Russell (Scott McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) are the two guys tasked with actually pulling off the feat.
The back story is that some years earlier, Markie had arranged for one of his own card games to be robbed – which temporarily shut down the entire lucrative mob card game industry because of fear that it would happen again. Markie had later simply let it slip that he’d set up that robbery. But his fellow gangsters decided somehow to give him a pass on that (seems a bit implausible, but whatever). So, the guy pulling Frankie and Russell’s strings (Vincent Curatola) figures that if another of Markie’s card games gets held up, the mob community will figure that Markie set it up again. They’ll direct their potentially murderous ire toward Markie, with the real perpetrators getting away clean.
Frankie and Russell are a couple of super-clichéd street-criminal characters, and their domination of the film’s first 20 minutes or so gets tedious. You start waiting for the interesting players to show up. Thankfully, after the pair somehow pull off the robbery, that quickly happens. Pitt rides in as Jackie, the mob enforcer who has to deal with the fallout from the card game robbery. He has to get to the bottom of what happened and organize whatever punitive steps need to be taken.
Jackie has covert car conversations with a nameless mob go-between (Jenkins) about what he’s found out, and what he’s going to do next. Naturally, this investigation of sorts leads to serious violence, and lots of it. Gandolfini shows up as a hitman named Mickey, and for those of you still disappointed that your last image of Tony Soprano was interrupted by a black screen in 2007, take heart: Here, Gandolfini’s Mickey is essentially Tony, only more outwardly messed up. He even uses Jackie as a de facto (but not too sympathetic) therapist, and through the use of a little too much dialogue, it becomes clear that Mickey’s in a bad place, and his heart isn’t really in the task of whacking somebody.
It isn’t just the big things – the plot, the reliance on dialogue, and such – that are fading carbon copies of Tarantino and his disciples. If you’re a student of these types of movies, like I sort of am, a lot of the little elements are going to feel strikingly familiar, too. Not only are Frankie and Russell dirty, dumb criminal caricatures, they’re also nervous, inept robbers who barely pull off the initial caper (like in “Suicide Kings” or even “Go”); there’s a car discussion about a wild sexual encounter (“Go” once again); a guy finishes another guy’s drink, then punctuates it with a refreshed exhale (“Pulp Fiction”); there’s a fleshed-out heroin sequence (“Pulp Fiction” again); and murder scenes are slowed down and soundtracked with melancholy pop music from sometime around the mid-20th Century (pick a movie, any movie). You could even throw in that the closing credits greet you abruptly with an early rock ’n’ roll song, just like “Snatch.”
The one thing that hasn’t been done before in a recent film of this kind – at least not to my movie-watching knowledge – is the backdrop. This entire story, from the opening scene, is laid square on top of the 2008 financial crisis – which, it’s made clear, affects the shady economic world these criminals operate in just as adversely as it’s affecting the normal folk. News and speeches about the crisis – mostly the words of President George W. Bush and then-candidate Barack Obama – are on TV and car radios everywhere these characters go. Initially, you wonder exactly where they’re going with this, but it ends up working well, and it ties beautifully into the theme expressed in the final scene, which is much more satisfying than the film as a whole.
Also on the positive side, Pitt shines – again. He seems to naturally fall into whatever role he takes these days, and this turn as Jackie is no exception. Even if the character isn’t particularly an original creation, he’s an interesting one because Pitt just knows how to make him interesting. The rest of the famous names really end up being nonfactors. Liotta, Gandolfini and Jenkins (an extremely underrated and versatile actor) ably do what they’re asked to do – which, ultimately and disappointingly, isn’t much.
Knowing what a film like this is going to bring, if you like this sort of thing absolutely without qualification, you’ll enjoy “Killing Them Softly.” If the backdrop sounds like it’s enough to pull you in, or if you’re an enormous Pitt fan, it might be worth the watch then, too. Otherwise, you’ve seen most of this before, and it’s been done a lot better.
2 ½ stars out of 5