“Killing Them Softly”: When bad guys go after bad guys

You know you are dealing with some really bad people when the most admirable character in the story is a mob enforcer.

Welcome to “Killing Them Softly,” the third directorial effort from Andrew Dominik, who previously presented “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” and “Chopper.”

People who have seen those two films will be acquainted with Dominik’s gritty, uncompromisingly violent style, and “Killing Them Softly” does not soften this approach.

Dominik adapted “Killing” for the screen, based upon the novel “Coogan’s Trade” by George V. Higgins, known for his critically acclaimed 1973 novel “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.”

It is said that the most damaging way for an entity to unravel is from within, and that’s what gives “Killing” its essence. Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta) runs mob-protected card games and at one time came upon a plan to have his own games robbed — seriously hurting the organized crime economy — at a nice personal profit for himself. Markie essentially got away with it, as no hard evidence pointed to him — however, on the streets the consensus was that he planned the robbery. And later, Markie boasts about pulling off the crime.

So, a few years later, an underworld guy named Johnny “Squirrel” Amato (Vincent Curatola) hatches a plan to have Markie’s games robbed again. This second robbery ostensibly will frame Trattman as the guilty party, the conclusion being that if Markie pulled it off once, he likely would do it again. Squirrel and his cohorts then pocket the money and skate away free.

Squirrel hires an ex-con, Frankie (Scoot McNairy), to do the robbery, and Frankie enlists the help of the drug-addled Russell (Ben Mendelsohn), much to the vehement protests of Squirrel. Nevertheless, the two manage to pull off the robbery.

At first the scheme appears to work. However, the mob, again rattled by economic upheaval, brings in its top enforcer, Jackie Coogan (Brad Pitt). Jackie has in-car conferences with a liaison only known as Driver (Richard Jenkins) where they discuss strategies to clean up this latest mess.

Jackie sends two goons to rough up Markie and get a confession. Markie is brutally beaten (viewer warning — this is a vicious attack) but cannot rat anyone out because he has no knowledge of who was behind the robbery.

Watching Jackie in action triggers memories of the scene in “The Fifth Element” when Jean-Baptists Emanuel Zorg (Gary Oldman) talks about the kind of person he likes: “A killer. A dyed-in-the-wool killer; cold-blooded, clean, methodical and thorough.”

Such is Jackie. Although concluding that Markie may have been innocent this time, Jackie insists Markie be taken down, if nothing else to restore order to the card games branch of the operations.

“Killing them softly” is what Jackie calls his method of elimination. He prefers to kill from a distance, with the target getting no warning, rather than a face-to-face encounter that leads to begging, crying and messiness.

As expected, the foggy-brained Russell proves unreliable in keeping his mouth shut and soon Jackie has zeroed in on Squirrel and Frankie.

Pitt exudes a cool confidence as Jackie. He is cold-blooded and methodical, and his work is as clean as can be expected with bullets doing all the damage.

James Gandolfini makes a brief appearance as a throwaway character, Mickey, a financially struggling hitman Jackie imports to help with the contracts but who proves useless, holing up in a hotel and partying.

None of the characters in this story deserves sympathy. They are law-breakers and greedy and foolish. Pitt’s Jackie does command respect. He is good at what he does, and does not apologize for it. In the end, when he find he is been underpaid, he simply but firmly tells Driver to get him his money. And you know he will get it.

“Killing Them Softly” is a brutal movie. It exposes a nasty underbelly of the human condition and challenges the viewer to follow along. Thanks to Pitt’s cold-hearted but charismatic Jackie, it is a shuddering but memorable experience.

Key December birthdays:

Turning 40: Jude Law, 12/29

45: Jamie Foxx, 12/13; Mo’Nique, 12/11

50: Ralph Fiennes, 12/22

55: Steve Buscemi, 12/13; Ray Romano, 12/21

60: Susan Dey, 12/10; Tovah Feldsuh, 12/27

65: Ben Cross, 12/16; Ted Danson, 12/29; Tim Matheson, 12/31

70: Mike Nesmith, 12/30; Fred Ward, 12/30

75: Jane Fonda, 12/21; Anthony Hopkins, 12/31; Paul Stookey, 12/30

 

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