"Killing Them Softly" crams a double feature into a little more than 90 minutes.
Looking for a gritty crime story where attitude and ammunition fly with equal abandon? "Killing Them Softly" delivers. Writer-director Andrew Dominik (whose other credits are "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" and the Aussie crime tale "Chopper") mixes hard-boiled dialogue and operatic bloodshed in a way that will thrill the generations of moviegoers weaned on Peckinpah, Woo, Tarantino and the like.
Rather see a serious political allegory that portrays American democracy as the feckless tool of capitalism, regardless of which party is in power? "Killing Them Softly" is that movie too.
Despite the title, there's nothing soft - or subtle - about Dominik's approach to either story.
On the crime front, a corrupt businessman (Vincent Curatola) sends out a couple of ex-cons, Frankie (Scoot McNairy) and his surly Aussie heroin addict buddy Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), to rob an illegal card game. The guy who runs the game, Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), once pulled a heist on his own game before, so the businessman figures Markie will be the prime suspect if it happens again.
As is usually the case in these kinds of movies, things don't go quite according to plan, and a business-like hitman / fixer named Jackie (Brad Pitt) is brought in to clean up the mess, create scapegoats and restore public confidence in their criminal venture.
WHAT: "Killing Them Softly"
STARS: Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini and Vincent Curatola.
STORYLINE: As the financial markets crash in October 2008, a crime syndicate deals with its own financial crisis after one of its illegal card games is robbed.
DIRECTOR: Andrew Dominik
RATING: R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language and some drug use.
The movie takes place in October 2008 as the financial markets are collapsing and Barack Obama and John McCain are in the final days of their presidential campaigns. Every radio and television in the movie is turned to the news, and the words of the candidates, financial officials and others are used to parallel the action on screen.
This is the kind of movie that seems likely to have a short life in theaters but will develop a pretty fervent cult following as audiences discover it on DVD or cable. If you've ever posted a meme on Facebook arguing that Romney / Obama, Republicans / Democrats are two sides of the same coin, this will be your favorite movie of 2012.
Any commercial success it achieves in theaters will be due to Pitt's star turn as Jackie.
Jackie is a no-nonsense professional in a world of screw ups and bureaucrats. One would be hard pressed to come up with more grandiose entrance music than Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around," which accompanies Jackie's arrival on screen at about the 20-minute mark. Pitt oozes the killer cool of John Travolta's Vincent Vega in "Pulp Fiction," but Jackie's not the kind of guy who's going to take a bullet while sitting on the can.
He's the closest thing the movie has to conscience, even if he's lamenting the bureaucratic morass of the crime organization he's working for or disgusted at the bloated, out-of-control mess a fellow hitman (James Gandolfini) has become.
This testosterone fest (a hooker may be the only female character with any significant dialogue) is well-acted from top to bottom. Richard Jenkins comes off more like a corporate middle manager instead of a crime figure (which is Dominik's intent), Liotta always seems to rise to the level of the material he's given and Mendelsohn's is marvelously scuzzy as Russell.
Those performances help "Killing Them Softly" hit as hard as it does.