Film review: Pitt's cold assassin makes for a bleak 'Killing'

In “Killing Them Softly,” Aussie director Andrew Dominik — who made the much praised 2007 Western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” — takes on yet another classic American genre, the mob film. Based on George V. Higgins's 1974 novel “Cogan's Trade,” the action has been transferred to 2008, around the time of the Obama/McCain bout. The movie was mostly shot in New Orleans, apparently masquerading as Boston (unless New Orleans is also near a town called Somerville and is populated entirely by people with northeastern accents).

Quentin Tarantino and Elmore Leonard are the obvious influences here; as in most of their stories, “Killing Them Softly” has no clear-cut protagonist. At first we spend time with very small-time hood Frankie (Scoot McNeary) and his Australian idiot buddy Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), who are convinced by older crook Johnnie (Vincent Curatola) to knock over a mob-protected card game run by sweet guy Markie (Ray Liotta).

Frankie and Russell have just enough functioning brain cells to recognize this as a Very Bad Idea until Johnnie explains its brilliance: The game had already been hit a few years earlier; later, Markie admitted that he set up the heist himself. But time had passed, and everybody likes Markie, so nothing was done. Still, if the game gets robbed again, Markie will be the obvious suspect.

Johnny's right, and higher-ups start leaning on poor Markie, as well as looking for the two dopes. (If you really hate Ray Liotta, the scene where he gets beaten should satisfy your loathing; for the rest of us, it's just way too protracted and brutal.) They bring in Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt, finally showing up 25 minutes into the film), a coldbloodedly efficient hit man; and Jackie in turn brings in some out-of-town help, in the person of Mickey (James Gandolfini), who turns out to be not quite as reliable as in the old days.

From this point on, the film sticks mostly with Jackie, with some necessary excursions elsewhere — necessary not just for plot reasons, but because there's nothing about Jackie that we can warm to (except, of course, that he's Brad Pitt). He's all business to such an extent that we never see anything of his personal life or learn much about his thinking. We get glimpses of his political worldview, which eventually represent the film's own attitudes.

He is so emotionally contained that the movie threatens to dry up until Gandolfini arrives and provides a jolt of humanity. It may not be good humanity, but it certainly engages us in a way that has otherwise been missing. Mickey seems to love and hate life; Jackie just lives it. Mickey may be on a downhill slide, but Gandolfini brings a bluster and vulnerability that makes him easier to relate to. (He also behaves as misogynistically as one would expect in this thuggish community. In fact, the only female speaking role in the whole film is a hooker he insults.)

Jackie is the least sympathetic character Pitt has played since his early role in “Kalifornia” — which may explain why opening weekend audiences gave “Kissing Them Softly” the lowest possible Cinemascore, even as Rotten Tomatoes shows critical approval at 76%. It's a terrific — or, at least, near terrific — film, whose political subtext is strong, if often heavy-handed.

In some ways, “Killing Them Softly” is similar to Martin McDonagh's “Seven Psychopaths” — in addition to tone and setting, both, strangely enough, feature dognappers — but with way less humor. In fact, Dominik may have come up with the bleakest film since last year's “Melancholia.” It's still entertaining — fun even — but bleak fun.

ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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