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.
After 20 years with the LAPD Det. Mitch Preston (Robert De Niro) just wants to catch the crooks finish the paperwork and retreat to his mundane life at home where he eats TV dinners and pursues his hobby of making bad pottery. Patrolman Trey Sellars (Eddie Murphy) really wants to be an actor--he's only a cop because he made a lousy waiter. When Sellars bungles Preston's undercover case and media hounds catch it all on tape the irate Preston shoots up a news camera that gets in his face. Over-caffeinated network exec Chase Renzi (Rene Russo) upon seeing the damning evidence that could have killed her cameraman is captivated by Preston's complete lack of charm and convinces her superior she can save his crappy network by pairing Preston and Sellars up on a reality show. As expected Preston is reluctant--and even more so when he's forced to take the mugging Sellars as his partner. The two take impromptu acting lessons from iconic actor/director William Shatner (playing himself) and set off to attract an audience boost the ratings become celebrities and get the bad guys in a televised reality christened Showtime. Meanwhile the evil Cesar Vargas (Pedro Damian)--whom we know is evil 'cause he hides in the shadows he's flashy and well groomed and he mumbles in an unfathomable Third World/ European accent--is stockpiling guns powerful enough to knock down houses and blow the doors off a Brinks truck.
The movie offers a few good yuks--a coke-sniffing dog an unprecedented cameo by jive-rhyming lawyer Johnnie Cochran and William Shatner satirizing William Shatner (who does this better than anybody else satirizing William Shatner). Unfortunately we've seen a lot of his funniest stuff like the scene in which he demonstrates how to roll over a car hood cop-style in the previews. Rene Russo gives an effective souped-up Lethal Weapon-type performance with her hyper pushy fast-talking network exec desperate to make her name in the industry. De Niro's straight-man comedy is in his facial expressions--or lack thereof--and Murphy is…well Murphy. It's their first outing together and they play off each other like a foul-mouthed version of Abbott and Costello (guess who plays who?). We've seen De Niro play grumpy (Midnight Run) and Murphy play obnoxious (almost everything) before. But as you may suspect it's their grade-A chemistry that holds this badly stitched predictable though occasionally funny flick together--especially in regards to the jokes on Hollywood and the current bounty of reality TV.
You can smell the gags and The Odd Couple-versus-Goldfinger plot unfolding a million miles away. You just know Preston is hiding a gun inside that Big Gulp when he goes undercover to investigate a pawn shop and you know Vargas will make bad-guy errors in judgment like staging a robbery in downtown L.A. the day after he's confronted by our star cops in a populated disco. But that may lead you to wonder why the police--who are likewise not presented as being particularly bright in this movie--weren't trailing him as Vargas is the prime suspect in the gun-trafficking subplot. Some of the comedy borders on satire but isn't played up enough for you to tell if it was meant that way or not. The action scenes are so badly edited it's hard to tell who's chasing whom until the camera cuts back to Murphy's toothy grin and a cement-faced De Niro shooting out his car window. And speaking of commercial-laden reality TV the product placement in this movie is shameless--we get a full-length commercial for Apple Computers played not once but twice.