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(2012) (Brad Pitt, Scoot McNairy) (R)

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Black Comedy/Drama/Action: Two low-life criminals must contend with the aftermath of robbing a syndicate card game operation, including the hitman who's called to take care of matters.
Frankie (SCOOT McNAIRY) and his friend Russell (BEN MENDELSOHN) are two low-lives barely scraping by in New Orleans. When Frankie's criminal acquaintance Johnny "Squirrel" Amato (VINCENT CURATOLA) wants to hire him for a risky but seemingly foolproof robbery job, Frankie wants Russell as his accomplice and finally convinces Johnny they can pull it off.

The job is to knock off a card game operation managed by Markie Trattman (RAY LIOTTA). He runs the event for a criminal organization and unwisely admitted that years earlier he was the one who arranged for the game to be robbed. Johnny knows that if it happens again, Markie will be the obvious suspect and thus he, Frankie and Russell should get off scot-free.

The two bumbling thugs succeed, but Russell can't keep his mouth shut, thus giving the crime bosses a scent to follow. Their middle-man, known as the Driver (RICHARD JENKINS), hires hitman Jackie Cogan (BRAD PITT) to take care of matters. He doesn't believe in prolonging any of his victims' misery and believes in "killing them softly," but since he knows Johnny, he brings in washed-up hitman Mickey (JAMES GANDOLFINI) from out of town to do that hit.

From that point on, those involved in the robbery discover that they didn't manage to pull off the heist without deadly serious repercussions.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
The old saying is that politics make strange bedfellows. And having worked in the U.S. Senate for more than a decade, I can attest to the validity of that observation. Politics, or at least political elements themselves can make strange bedfellows in non-political arenas, such as the cinema. While, as Tom Jones used to sing, it's not unusual for politics to be involved in movies (be that the production and/or distribution of them as well as within the story), it's not often real-world politics end up in a black comedy meets action drama about less than perfectly bright criminals and the professional killers hired to take care of their actions and take advantage of their sloppiness.

But that's what happens in "Killing Them Softly," director Andrew Dominik's follow-up and something of a thematic companion piece to his last film, "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford." While that pic was based on -- yes, you guessed it, the title says it all -- this one is an adaptation of George V. Higgins' 1974 crime novel "Cogan's Trade." In it, Brad Pitt plays one of the aforementioned hitmen brought in by a criminal middle man of sorts (the always brilliant Richard Jenkins) to deal with two low-lives (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn) who've knocked over a criminally-backed gambling operation managed by a man (Ray Liotta) who previously arranged its own robbery.

The man who arranges the new heist (Vincent Curatola from "The Sopranos") says it's a no-brainer as that manager will likely be viewed as suspect number one. Unfortunately for them, the no-brainer part really applies to one of the robbers who can't keep his yap shut and thus allows Pitt's character to move in. But his is not some sadistic killer. He sees it as a business that should be figuratively and literally executed with speed and precision, believing there's no need for anyone to suffer needlessly. Thus, his modus operandi is "killing them softly" with as little fuss and muss as possible.

That might sound like a not altogether pleasant time at the movies, and you may be wondering where the politics fits in. Does Pitt's character wax philosophical like his fellow cinematic hitmen in "Pulp Fiction?" Yes and no, as he definitely has a viewpoint about America and its current state. But he doesn't just start yakking about it like some Tarantino character. Instead, he occasionally reacts to TV news footage of then President George W. Bush and presidential candidate and then U.S. Senator Barak Obama and their various speeches about America, its economics, and how we're one big happy family.

Thematically, those bits work in connecting to the lower-level and local economics that play out in the director's own screenplay adaptation of Higgins' earlier work. But some may view Dominik as drumming that into the ground as such speeches not only introduce and wrap-up the nearly 100-minute story, but they also play under all sorts of scenes between those points, including the pivotal (and fairly tense) robbery sequence. While the first such speech (by Obama) jars the viewer during the unusual opening bit, and drives home the main thematic thrust nicely at the end, the other uses end up being a bit redundant (we get the point already) and even somewhat distracting.

The latter might also be said about the filmmaker's highly stylistic directorial flourishes that give off the impression someone might have been watching too many of Tarantino's films and others of that visual ilk. From a super slow-motion drive-by shooting execution to the introduction of Pitt's character via the sounds of Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around" (complete with the car pulling up and the camera focusing on the hit man's foot hitting the ground and the moving up his body, etc.) to other such flourishes, the film is, if anything, never boring to watch. But it also feels somewhat derivative, not to mention emitting a bit of near desperation of "watch what I'm doing now" direction. I noticed but didn't mind it too much, but some viewers might have issues with what they could view as cinematic grandstanding.

Thankfully, that can't really be said about the performances that are pretty much spot-on for what's required of them in their respective roles. Pitt could easily play this sort of character in his sleep, not to mention via any number of routes (mean and vicious, charming yet deadly, world-weary but proficient, etc.). He ends up being a combination of all of that and a bit more, thus creating something of a mesmerizing persona who, rightly so, easily commands the screen whenever he appears.

McNairy and Mendelsohn are perfect as the criminal low-lifes with enough differences among them that they're not just carbon copies, while Jenkins is a delight as middle-man who could just as easily be handling a corporate audit as he is hiring a hitman and serving as the go-between. Supporting performances from the likes of Liotta and especially James Gandolfini (as a washed up hitman with all sorts of personal issues) nicely complement the rest of the cast as well as the story.

If you don't mind the decidedly adult material (beyond the killings there's plenty of profanity and sexually explicit conversations), you might just enjoy one or more aspects of this flick that's deadly serious when it needs to be, but doesn't take itself too seriously. That is, except for the thematic messages and the repeated use of Bush and Obama clips to drive home the point(s). Whether you see them as overkill will likely depend on how you view politics, but they certainly aren't used along the lines of what the title suggests. Not for everyone but an interesting and sometimes fairly funny offering, "Killing Them Softly" rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 26, 2012 / Posted November 30, 2012

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