Remembering One of Ray Stevenson’s Most Overlooked Roles

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Ray Stevenson died on location in Italy this week while working on the film Cassino in Ischi. In it, he plays Nic Cassino, who appears to be the title character. But throughout his career the actor was renowned for strong supporting roles. Stevenson exemplified this “one for all” spirit as Porthos in The Three Musketeers (2011) and honed it through The Book of Eli (2010), King Arthur (2004), the Thor movies, and the upcoming Star Wars Disney+ series, Ashoka. He was at his most supportive, even as a lead character, when he played legionnaire Titus Pullo in HBO’s Rome. Pullo was a warrior with a heart of gold, but at one point he could also be the second-hand-man to an early version of a mob kingpin.

But Stevenson was second to no one in the role of Danny Greene, the titular character of writer-director Jonathan Hensleigh’s 2011 gangster-genre love letter, Kill the Irishman.

Set in the midst of a historic 1970s mob war in Cleveland, Kill the Irishman is not a great film, but it is an entertaining one. Gangster movie fans will not regret the time they put in. The cast is rogue’s gallery royalty, and all reflecting their true-life counterparts: Christopher Walken as loan shark Shondor Birns; Tony Lo Bianco as mafia capo Jack Licavoli; Vincent D’Onofrio as rival capo John Nardi; and Goodfellas’ Paul Sorvino as “Fat Tony” Salerno.

Val Kilmer rounds it up as Joe Manditski, Greene’s childhood friend who becomes the head of Cleveland’s police department. The screenplay by Hensleigh and co-writer Jeremy Walters is an adaptation of the book To Kill the Irishman: The War That Crippled the Mafia, written by Rick Porrello. The author served as Cleveland district police chief, which might be why Kilmer’s Manditski turns down Danny’s offer to pick up a bar tab for “propriety’s sake.” While Manditski, even with a few extra pounds added, looks like he’d be ready to “dance” with Greene armed with nothing but a “plastic buffer-knife,” he doesn’t break a sweat going after his former hoops rival for his current crimes. As close as they get, they can never be too close because they stay out of each other’s way. Their tricky relationship is very subtly done.

Even among such rough company, Stevenson does not give an inch of his turf as the star of this film. As “the man the mob couldn’t kill,” he towers in the part of the clever criminal, and no one can steal a scene.

A Criminally Good Supporting Cast

As John Nardi, D’Onofrio underplays his A-game. He internalizes contradictory motives while tossing off bravura disguised as insincere apology. Nardi is justifiably angry, knows his justification doesn’t matter in the logistics of mob hierarchy, and still advances. Then D’Onofrio turns it around with the warmest onscreen camaraderie to be had with Stevenson. Greene and Nardi feel like friends to the audience. We sense the mutual respect, and the enjoyment they get from each other. We root for their friendship. We are truly pissed when Nardi opens the wrong door after dancing, not bare-knuckled throttling as the term is usually used, but dancing, away from Greene after a minor victory. What gangster does that? D’Onofrio sells it though, because Stevenson buys it with cautious optimism.

Like most gangster films made after The Sopranos, Kill the Irishman employed several actors who made their bones on the HBO gangland gamechanger. Vinny Vella gets a no-work position as New York mobster Frank Brancato. The film hauls in Steve Schirripa, as “Big Mike” Frato and Tony Darrow as Mikey Mendarolo: two waste management truckers who take on the garbage union and stand off against their good friend, Greene. Schirripa and Stevenson make an instant connection at their first encounter, which continues in their onscreen arc. They have each other’s backs at different times, and Greene has true concern about Frato’s kids, all 10 of them.

We are led to believe Greene misfires on his attempt to blow Frato up in his car out of a sense of loyalty. But the victim under the vehicle belies that. Greene and Frato’s ultimate showdown happens quickly but accomplishes a lot, twisting the Irishman’s sense of honor and reconfiguring his allegiances. Darrow’s scene with Kilmer is pure icing on the cake; Stevenson cooks in his heated interrogation with the top cop, and it showcases how much of the film is about character. Stand up guys get that rep by not having much to say, and the actors say a lot without words or around them.

One of the most fun things to watch in an actor is how they play duplicity. Stevenson is forthright to Sorvino’s underhanded “Fat Tony,” who praises him to his face, and orders his best hitter to do the job on the Irishman before his car even turns a corner. Greene knows the score but lays his cards on the table face up. As Shondor Birns, Walken brings an undercurrent of warmth to his glacial businessman, an icy disassociation from his usurious business, and a total freeze to business associates who bring on any heat. 

The rifts work more effectively because friendships have been established. This becomes most infuriating when Birns uses mob logic on Greene, because it seems a solution can easily be worked out, if only businessmen didn’t spend their own money. It is what finally makes Greene strike out on his own.

An Independent Decision

Hensleigh makes some bold choices. Most films would follow Danny’s clearing the neighborhood of the property-value-diminishing biker gang with cheers. Instead Stevenson’s overzealous application of neighborhood watch tactics emotionally alienates him from the families he is trying to protect. It may be the real final straw to his first marriage.

Greene is a seemingly contradictory character, but his duality makes sense in the background we are provided. He was an orphan, living in “a dump on Waterloo,” who graduated from the Marines to the docks, to the gang-controlled end of town. Greene is a feared criminal who is supposed to be a family-loving, community-minded protector of his turf. His first wife Joan Madigan, played by Linda Cardellini, has a fast and furious arc. Promised the world, she can’t stomach the block, even after her husband pummels the menace to the street’s society. Stevenson allows Greene complete vulnerability in his romance until he has to cut off all feelings without thought. Greene’s second wife, Ellie O’Hara (Laura Ramsey), is looking for menace.

Stevenson shows range and takes risks, keeping Greene off-center, from the larger-than-life antihero figure to working class everyman. He says he has no humanity, that he has no good in him, and is given an earful from the matronly Irish neighbor who sees the stuff of legends in the thug next door. Fionnula Flanagan may play Grace O’Keefe like the cleaning lady in Johnny Dangerously (1984), but she can’t fool Danny.

“You’re a strong Irish woman,” he explains after paying her rent. “I like that.” She bestows on him a Celtic Cross, an Irish heirloom which Danny will pass on in a crucial moment. The ancestral Celtic-warrior connections are admittedly a tad forced, but many gangster movies are steeped in ethnic sentiment and pride.

Greene’s love of books, and his expertise in history, may not make sense on the surface since Kilmer’s opening narration said he “had no interest in school.” Stevenson makes this work in the way mobsters in early gangster movies did: he commits to it. His entire disposition says he was driven to learn, even if it’s only to impress the occasional barmaid or to lob an insult over an opponent’s head. A book is a versatile weapon in his longshoreman-forged, racketeer-strongarm-hardened hands. The first hints the film gives us that Danny Greene is a known entity in the community is when a dockworker quotes him on how the container ship economy is going to play out in the years to come.

Matching the Era

The film opens and closes in the summer of 1976 when the city of Cleveland was rocked by 36 bombs in a transition of power complicated by a battle between Greene and the Italian mafia. The segments bookend Greene’s rise from a longshoreman, shaping up each morning for work, to running the union, until his criminal roots get him run out of all union affiliation for life. Greene becomes a ruthless enforcer with a bleeding heart, ultimately dubbed “Robin Hood on Collingwood.” These facts are ripped from the period’s headlines and shown on TV screens, all prominently featured in Kill the Irishman.

One of my favorite things about the film is how some of the worst violence comes from archival news footage of the actual events. We see the cinematic explosion of a particularly destructive car bomb and know the results are devastating, but when an on-the-ground-at-the-time reporter catches a cop saying, “We found a leg over by the fence,” the mental image melds with historic fact, and registers like newsprint on the brain.

Seeing the real Danny Greene throw down his challenge to the mob on a local news report during the finale packs a wallop. It shows how Stevenson adapted himself, except his hairline, into the man behind the persona. When he looks into the TV news camera and says, “They know where to find me,” the audience believes it. We know Stevenson studied the walk and the offhanded threat behind the amused blarney of the luck of the Irish. God, he says out loud, will take him when it’s time. Silently he warns, until then, he’s got business to do. Nasty business. You wanna watch? Here is where I live.

For all his confidence, Greene lacks self-awareness. Chaotic in the ordered society, he doesn’t accept his designation in organized crime. He doesn’t consider the clean-office surroundings, and all the police protection which goes with it, when he slaps outgoing union boss Jerry Merke (Bob Gunton) to submission before Greene has even thrown in his hat to run against him. He takes the office, the title, and the spoils just like James Cagney would in his audacious prime.

Kill the Irishman has the look and feel of the period in which it is set, and the films which dominated movie houses at that time. Director of Photography Karl Walter Lindenlaub attempts to recreate the gritty look of 1970s film stock to match the crime cinema ambiance of Sidney Lumet’s Serpico or William Friedken’s The French Connection. Nardi’s rival, and heir apparent, for Cleveland mob supremacy, Jack Licavoli, is played by Tony Lo Bianco, a veteran of the genre during its prime period, and a still-dedicated stage actor who played in both those films. He bridges generations, bringing out the worst in Greene and Nardi but the best from Stevenson and D’Onofrio. Their scenes bristle with an undercurrent of repressed menace and a lethal injection of mob rule humiliation. But it goes both ways.

Stevenson’s Greene is a modern interpretation of a throwback character, updated with informed dissent, and softened for mainstream sensitivities. Kill the Irishman could have been released in any era, and its urban Robin Hood could still have the appeal of a folk antihero.

The post Remembering One of Ray Stevenson’s Most Overlooked Roles appeared first on Den of Geek.

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