***1/2 (out of four)
“Killing Them Softly,” writer-director Andrew Dominik’s follow-up to 2007’s vastly under-seen “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” does include traditional criminal elements. But if the movie’s a used car, its parts are in great shape.
That’s because even as Dominik filters the film through Scorsese and Tarantino, the crooks in “Killing Them Softly” have a special brand of jittery desperation. Frankie (Scoot McNairy of “Argo”) and Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) believe that the crime to which Johnny (Vincent Curatola) assigns them will go smoothly: As Johnny says, Markie (Ray Liotta) already has held up his own card game, so if it happens again, everyone will assume Markie did it. Easy.
Nothing ever goes as planned, and Johnny’s skeptical instincts about Russell prove true. That’s when Jackie (Brad Pitt), an assassin proud of his anonymity, is brought in. As strategies disintegrate and bullets fly, Dominik frequently includes shots in the back of this ’08-set flick depicting both President Bush and then-Sen. Obama commenting on financial necessity and widespread unity in America.
Dominik lingers repeatedly on extended conversations, acted to the hilt by the above actors as well as Richard Jenkins and especially James Gandolfini as a hitman who used to be a lot more functional than he is now. His best one-liners are unsuitable for print here.
The result is a lonely, tough, pessimistic story. No one should go into “Killing Them Softly,” adapted from George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade,” expecting a rollicking action film. Dominik’s brand of patient yet brutal violence won’t be for everyone. Yet the movie’s not, as it may seem, just a stylish attempt to juice up a familiar situation. Though the numerous political TV clips aren’t subtly integrated into the story, “Killing Them Softly” puts a new spin on the extenuating circumstances that derail even the greatest (misguided) optimism, and the cracks that turn a pair or a group or a country into tiny, individual pieces. All with bills that must be paid.
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