After their gorgeously eerie The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford whistled a mesmerising three-hour requiem for the legends of the Old West, you’d be right to expect Oz writer/director Andrew Dominik and producer/star Brad Pitt to unfurl another great US epic.
But weirdly, crime drama Killing Them Softly turns out to be a sawn-off oddity.
Adapted from 1974 bestseller Cogan’s Trade, its stop-start story unpacks chewy, witty dialogue scenes that detonate in blasts of vivid violence.
We’re back in the midst of the 2008 economic collapse and America’s gangsters are suffering as much as America’s businessmen.
It’s mo’ money, mo’ problems for cool professional Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt), who’s hired to balance the books after lowlife punks Scoot McNairy (Monsters) and Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) stick up a gambling den in a superbly tense, sweaty heist sequence.
But Cogan becomes increasingly and amusingly exasperated by an all-star cast of criminals who just can’t take care of business.
Faded gangster Ray Liotta has used up his last chance and has to go. Mob accountant Richard Jenkins is all administrative faff. Pitt’s best hitman James Gandolfini is now a bloated wreck, rinsed out by booze and whores.
Scuzzy street-junkie Mendelsohn and hapless McNairy are still on the loose. It’s this terrific ensemble that offers real bang for your buck here – Mendelsohn’s skaghead Aussie is a brilliant creation – as Dominik builds a grimy world of bad men, brutal violence and stylish cinematics.
He cranks down into slow-motion for a kill sequence of wrecked glass, pirouetting shell cases and blobs of gore; he dunks us inside Mendelsohn’s heroin haze by fading in and out of trippy first-person blurs.
But then it ends, abruptly, and as the closing line lands heavily (“America’s not a country, it’s a business. Now fucking pay me”), Killing Them Softly’s supposed capitalist critique doesn’t add up to much payback.
Dominik’s bludgeoning attempts at satire – seemingly every scene has Obama yakking on a TV in the background – are too blunt to stomach.
Not quite as much, though, as one of the most staggeringly ruthless beatings you’ll ever see on screen: poor Liotta, horribly pulverised on the street – in his dressing gown, no less – before chucking his guts up on one of his attacker’s shoes.
Did we mention that Dominik reckons his film’s a comedy? Yep, a real side-splitter.
Tough, stylish, violent and studded with stars – but like so many of its American gangsters, Killing Them Softly doesn’t quite get the job done.