Movie review: 'Killing Them Softly' will bore you mightily

Al Alexander

Without Brad Pitt’s terrific, tongue-in-cheek portrayal of a cynical, urbane mob assassin, “Killing Them Softly” would have zero chance of ever being targeted for a hit. But even with the estimable star in place, writer-director Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to his inexplicably praised snoozefest, “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” too often fails to engage with its uneven mix of guns and gab.

Clearly, Dominik is a writer in love with his own words, filling the mouths of his menagerie of Boston lowlifes with loquacious dissertations on the sad state of the Miscreant Industrial Complex. To lend (unnecessary) meaning to their intentionally humorous, but rarely funny, observations, Dominik frequently asks them to jabber while George W. Bush and Barack Obama audibly weigh in on the 2008 financial meltdown in the background. The point being that both the mob and America are mismanaged corporations in which the peons, like Pitt’s Jackie Cogan, perform all the dirty work (like eliminating the men responsible for robbing a mob-operated card game) required to keep their greedy, megalomaniac employers rolling in power and dough. That might have been clever if not for “The Godfather” – and a half-dozen other films – covering much the same territory.

Yes, it’s as dull and convoluted as it sounds, and if not for Pitt – and a handful of co-stars the caliber of James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta – this trip to the movies would quickly devolve into a 90-minute nap, sans, of course, the two or three stretches in which Jackie graphically blows the scalps off his strayed peers – in super-slow mo. All the better to watch the blood and brain matter spray. And that, too, would be clever if dozens of other wiseguys hadn’t similarly had their hairs split in films too numerous to count. Come to think of it, there isn’t a second of “Killing Them Softly” (the title is a reference to Jackie’s preference of offing his victims from a distance so not to get too personally involved) that’s remotely fresh, and that includes the playing of quirky tunes like “It’s Only a Paper Moon” while bad guys experience the sensation of having the weight of their heads removed from their shoulders. At this, Dominik fully expects us to laugh. No dice. Not even close. Only a moron would find this drivel worthy of even a chuckle.

Worse, he does a disservice to Boston crime writer George V. Higgins (“The Friends of Eddie Coyle”), whose out-of-print classic “Cogan’s Trade” served as the inspiration for Dominik’s stultified script. By adding “humor” and attempting to draw a parallel between Wall Street and Murderers’ Row, Dominik only succeeds in diluting the power of the novel. He’s also as obvious as Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi” in his use of metaphors to represent things bigger than his protagonist. Like, for instance, queuing up Johnny Cash’s “When the Man Comes Around” to introduce Pitt’s character. Never mind that the lyrics are really about God, it just feels like overkill. He’s Brad Pitt. We already know his character is a badass taking names – and heads.

He plays it to the hilt, too, drawing most of the film’s precious few laughs. But his character is better suited to a satire like “The Sopranos” than a third-rate indie like this one. He’s simply too good, and too big for such a small movie. You’re glad he’s here, though, because he’s the only one making a “Killing.”

KILLING THEM SOFTLY (R for violence, sexual references, pervasive language and some drug use.) Cast includes Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta and James Gandolfini. Written and directed by Andrew Dominik.