By Christopher Lawrence
A bullet drifts from the barrel of Jackie Cogan’s (Brad Pitt) gun, ever-so-slowly puncturing the window of a neighboring car and sending glass shards dancing in midair where they’re eventually accompanied by a fine, red mist.
The scene, which makes glorious use of the sort of slow motion usually reserved for televised sports, is a visual feast. Like the Palace of Versailles playing host to a Nickelback concert, it’s beautiful in its horribleness.
Everyone involved with “Killing Them Softly” would have engendered far more goodwill by releasing that scene – along with the ensuing hyperstylized calamities that befall Jackie’s victim – as a short film, charging moviegoers a dollar to see it, then letting them go about their days.
Instead, what’s hitting theaters is not so much a movie as it is a series of lingering, patience-straining conversations, interspersed with far too many distracting snippets of political speeches and talk radio blatherings captured during the economic meltdown of 2008.
There’s something very wrong when a Mob movie casts both Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini, then devotes nearly as much screen time to archival footage of President George W. Bush and then-Sen. Barack Obama.
We get it. America’s corrupt. Move along.
Wannabe wiseguy Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) is convinced he’s thought of the perfect crime: taking down a Mob-protected card game. It’s already been knocked over once, and Markie Trattman (Liotta), the low-level gangster who runs it, drunkenly copped to the crime.
Johnny figures if the game is hit again, the Mob will blame Markie, and the real stick-up guys will get away clean. And for this once-in-a-lifetime score, he enlists Frankie (Scoot McNairy), a nervous ex-con, who in turn drags along an Australian junkie/dog thief named Russell (Ben Mendelsohn).
The duo would need to put in dozens of hours at night school just to be considered dense. But when they somehow pull off the job, Jackie is the enforcer called in to restore order.
It’s a fantastic arrival as Pitt, dressed in black and driving a muscle car, is introduced to the sounds of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Comes Around.” His Jackie is so undeniably cool, he sticks out like Fonzie Island in the middle of the Squaresville Sea.
Driver (Richard Jenkins), a frustrated middle manager in a bad suit, serves as the go-between for Jackie and the Mob, but he’s hamstrung by his cheap, indecisive bosses.
And Mickey (Gandolfini), a legendary hitman flown in to assist Jackie, proves to be more trouble than he’s worth by neglecting the job in favor of a three-day booze-and-hooker-fueled bender. Much like the doped-up Russell, Mickey’s barely conscious, his heavy eyelids half-closed as he exerts as little energy as possible. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear they were both being paid by the minute.
“Killing Them Softly” marks a reunion for Pitt and writer-director Andrew Dominik (“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”). Adapting the George V. Higgins novel “Cogan’s Trade,” Dominik displays a definite ear for dialogue.
Mickey perks up long enough to offer the non sequitur, “There’s no ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who’s hookin’.”
And the crass, dripping-in-expletives stories Russell spins sound like the sort of thing Guy Ritchie might have penned had he never gotten distracted by that Sherlock fellow.
There’s just too much of that dialogue. Pages and pages and boxes of pages too much.
All that talking, though, does make the short bursts of violence seem that much more shocking. It’s like someone started chucking hand grenades into scenes from “My Dinner with Andre.”
For the most part, that someone is Pitt’s Jackie, who can inflict the most brutal executions and then coolly stroll away. He’s the calm center of the storm, all but rolling his eyes at the incompetence surrounding him.
Pitt, who’ll never get his due as an actor, is quite good. You can try to hide him under a pompadour and a goatee, but you couldn’t rub the star power off of him with a belt sander.
And you have to admire the way he still takes chances like this when he could so easily coast on his looks in mainstream blockbusters.
But, as “Killing Them Softly’s” central crime proves, even the best-laid plans rarely work out the way you intend.
Christopher Lawrence is the film critic for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org