Sometimes a director has a favorite actor that they jibe with whom they cast in a whole whack of movies in a row. Think Scorsese and DiCaprio Wes Anderson and Bill Murray or Sofia Coppola and Kirsten Dunst. It's a sort of professional infatuation that can serve a project well but it can also lull them into self-indulgence. Although this is only the second time that Killing Them Softly's writer/director Andrew Dominik has worked with Brad Pitt it feels like they have a certain camaraderie. The symbiosis previously worked in their favor in 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. This time around they never quite find the same rhythm.
Of course Killing Them Softly has an entirely difference cadence than that golden-hued meditative Western; it's stylishly violent and blackly hilarious. After all the catalyst for this whole affair is a half-cocked scheme cooked up by a wanna-be gangster nicknamed Squirrel (Vincent Curatola) and carried out by a desperate ex-con (Scoot McNairy) and a scummy Australian junkie (Ben Mendelsohn) who steals and sells purebred dogs for cash. Their plan to knock over a mobbed-up card game is air tight (or so it seems): the game runner Markie (Ray Liotta) has confessed to setting up a heist of his own game in the past. The knuckleheads think the card-players will blame him again.
Unfortunately for them Jackie Cogan (Pitt) is called in to investigate the matter. His record is impeccable his glasses mirror-slick and his hands steady. His technique is of course to kill his victims "softly " from a distance. "It's so embarrassing " he comments to a middleman played by Richard Jenkins to watch his targets plead and cry and lose control of their bodily functions. It's just as embarrassing to see his colleagues lose their mettle like Mickey (James Gandolfini) a gangster he called in to help out. Mickey is a dogged drunk and a womanizer who's given to rapturous platitudes about a prostitute he knew in Florida. "There's no ass in the whole world like a young Jewish girl who's hooking " he tells an increasingly frustrated Jackie. Grossly funny scenes like this the scatological problems one encounters while driving dog-napped pups across country and an explosion gone awry are outweighed by a weirdly bloated narrative that makes pits stops so characters can loll in junkie nods to the tunes of the Velvet Underground.
The changing political climate of the era is used as a clumsy foil for this underground economy. At first it's interesting and makes you feel a bit clever to notice the TV in the background playing an old clip of George W. Bush droning on about the economy or a huge political ad on a billboard looming over a desolate area. As time goes on Bush is replaced by Obama (first as senator later as president) on TV but nothing really changes for these people or their situations. Midway through it's obvious and by the end overbearing especially as Jackie lectures Jenkins's lawyer (and us) about why the system is as screwed as the characters. "America's not a country it's a business. Now f**king pay me " he tells Jenkins's Driver in an echo of the classic Goodfellas line uttered by Liotta.
Dominik has only made three films but he's a formidable writer and director with a keen eye for assembling ensemble casts. It's possible that time and multiple viewings will treat Killing Them Softly as well as it has The Assassination of Jesse James or Chopper but for now it works better as a character study or perhaps a showpiece for its talented performers than an overall experience.
In the tradition of Batman Begins and Casino Royale the clock is rolled back on the legendary icons the D—the self-proclaimed greatest band in the world—as the curtain is pulled back on their secret origins and the demons that drive them are unveiled… OK so it’s not really that deep. Though the heavy metal/comedy combo of Jack/JB/”Jabeles” (Jack Black) and Kyle/KB/”Kage” (Kyle Gass) have long played hip clubs cut an album starred in their own short-lived HBO series and amassed a devoted cult of fans their first feature film reveals how the pudgy duo first meet form the band meet their first fan (Jason Reed as TV holdover Lee) go questing the fabled Pick of Destiny—a shard of Satan’s tooth turned into a guitar pick passed among rock’s most accomplished shredders—and ultimately smack down with the devil himself. Believe it or not it’s a love story. Thanks to their long professional partnership Black and Gass comprise two perfectly crafted sides of a very polished comedy coin: Black is the wild-eyed uncontrolled id Gass is the low-energy manipulative slacker and they meet in the middle with an equal amount of unchecked delusion about their musical ability and potential. They both deftly pull off the trickiest types of comedy: smart jokes in the guise of dumb characters and it’s nice to see Black—obviously the bigger film star of the two—share the funniest bits equally with Gass. Of course all of this hinges on the audience’s tolerance for the ambitiously clueless ego-cases (and moviegoers who only love Black for his tamer version of the same persona in School of Rock should be warned—this is the cruder ruder and more profane incarnation) but we admit we’ve long had a taste for the D. They boys carry they movie squarely on their shoulders though longtime D supporters Tim Robbins and Ben Stiller stand out in cameos—the first Stiller cameo in ages that’s both amusing and non-gratuitous! Also appearing in small bits: SNL’s Fred Armisen and Amy Poehler Oscar-nominee Amy Adams Colin Hanks hard rock hero Ronnie James Dio Foo Fighter Dave Grohl as Satan and an uncredited John C. Reilly though you’ll never ever recognize him when he’s onscreen. And kudos to whoever had the inspired notion to cast Meat Loaf as JB’s pious father and Troy Gentile as the young rockin’ JB (Gentile also played a junior version of Black in Nacho Libre). Helmer Liam Lynch who also collaborated on the screenplay with Black and Gass and directed their music video “Tribute ” understands the absurd world of the D completely and demonstrates a clever assured sense of straight-faced silliness. Indeed the first ten minutes of the film alone—a mini-rock opera in itself—announce him as a comedy director to watch. Although we’re sure the bandmates themselves would take full credit for the film’s success. After all they may not have made the greatest movie in the world but in D-speak they came up with a pretty rockin’ tribute version.