Mob movie traditions bounce all over the place in Andrew Dominik's neat, nihilistic Killing Them Softly, a film that engages only in parts and, while well performed, is considerably weighed down by its own inertness.
Much is borrowed from the crime classics -- character traits, exposition technique, chatty hitmen, and even a winding tracking shot, albeit in reverse -- but Dominik bravely attempts to subvert the genre by winding it down, by showing us the banality behind the bullets, the business behind the bravado.
The problem with recreating dullness accurately, however, is that stupefied hands are too busy stifling yawns to applaud.
A pair of lowlifes -- in dishwashing gloves and seemingly ineffective masks -- rob a poker game at gunpoint, and it is through this point that cinematic tension builds up like a fireswallower taking a deep breath. Things constantly skate on the edge of disaster, and you can't help waiting for some potentially bloody catastrophe.
After this longish, masterfully tight scene, however, it's all boring bluster as Dominik starts drawing tenuous parallels about recession-struck corporations, the mob and America itself, the latter emphasised by television sets in bars constantly tuned to Obama-speeches.
Brad isn't buying Barack's schtick. Playing a queasy assassin named Jackie Cogan, Pitt earnestly delivers lines about how he likes to kill from a distance, "softly" and never those he's already met.
also, just to mirror another gangster movie reference, believes very strongly in tipping. Okay then. So shows up less persnickety hitman James Gandolfini, playing a horny slob. Of all the film's allusions, the one most amusing -- even if certainly unintended -- is an echo of The Simpsons, with Pitt trying his best Mayor Quimby accent while sitting across from Gandolfini's slovenly Homer.
Like I said, there's a whole bunch of fine, fine actors. Ray Liotta is in there, pudgy and frequently punched-up, and even the infallible Richard Jenkins looks sleepy as he -- playing a lawyer -- gives Cogan his marching orders. The musical cues are clumsily on the nose, most of them songs kicking off with shots of people driving cars in the sun, and while the film weighs in at under a hundred minutes, it still feels distinctly tiring.
The start and the end both have steam, but the rest of this shindig -- this Thomas Smalltown Affair -- sags like a wet cigar, the kind Gandolfini's character would spit out.
Maybe it's accurate. Maybe gangsters have indeed become corporate slaves, led around by whiny lawyers. Then again, maybe paint takes a fair while to dry.
Killing Them Softly could still have worked, and shows off sparks of potential every now and again -- an intoxicated, flashback-ridden conversation is a highlight -- but its clunky America bashing is ultimately too childish.
All we carry back is a whimsically shot scene, or a moment of slow-motion glory. And it isn't worth it. Dominik's film isn't really a good fella, just a wiseguy. Fuggedaboutit.