Movie Reviews: Killing Them Softly

Killing Them Softly ****

Movie Reviews: Killing Them Softly

They may not make ’em like they used to, but Andrew Dominik can’t be faulted for his ambition in Killing Them Softly (18s), an adaptation of George V Higgins’ 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, which harks back to that decade’s classic crime flicks in its fully rounded characterisations of thieves, lowlifes and killers. When a gang knocks off a Mob-protected card game, hitman Jackie Cogan (Brad Pitt) is called in to track down the perpetrators and dispatch them in his inimitable way, a unique style from which the film takes its title.

With the setting updated to a grim, post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans during Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign, Dominick’s tendency to unleash moments of unexpected violence keeps the audience on the edge of its seat and makes a mockery of Obama’s pleas for ‘change’ and ‘hope’ on behalf of ‘community’, as the nonchalance with which the violence is delivered, and the businesslike attitude to death, highlights the divide between political rhetoric and the reality of the street. But while it’s bleak, it’s also hilarious.

There are times when Dominik appears to prefer to chase the black humour rather than allow the plot follow its own logic, but the Higgins-inspired dialogue is, well, inspired, and some of the digressions are among the movie’s highlights. With Cogan surrounded by a cabal of incompetents, Brad Pitt seizes the opportunity to excel as the frustrated hitman, although one or two of his co-stars — among them Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini and Scott McNairy — push him close in the scene-stealing stakes.

Now is Good (15A) stars Dakota Fanning as Tessa, a teenager dying from leukaemia. Naturally, Tessa has a list of things she’d like to do before she dies, one of which is to fall in love and lose her virginity. Or is that two things?

Either way, new neighbour Adam (Jeremy Irvine) becomes Tessa’s boynext-door in shining armour, and a poignant relationship begins. Directed by Ol Parker, who also adapts Jenny Downham’s novel Before I Die, the film is a well-intentioned and worthy piece which tugs gently at the heartstrings but never fully engages with the prospect of Tessa’s death.

Even Paddy Considine, who plays Tessa’s father, has precious little to work, while Olivia Williams is almost entirely sidelined as the feckless mother. Fanning, meanwhile, puts in a muted performance at the heart of the story, with Tessa characterised as a laconic, prematurely wise young woman who has resigned herself to her fate.

Opposite her, Irvine is as strapping, sensitive and chisel-jawed as any boynext-door needs to be, but he and Fanning are devoid of any kind of chemistry. Ultimately this pretty, sanitised tale is a Hallmark card of a film.

Savages (18s) is yet another film adapted from a novel, in this case Don Winslow’s crime title of the same name. Set in contemporary California, it centres on the trio of ex-Marine Chon (Taylor Kitsch), his best buddy Ben (Aaron Johnson), and their lover O (Blake Lively).

One of California’s biggest independent dope-growing operations, Ben and Chon find their business under threat when the Baja cartel, led by Lada (Benicio Del Toro) and Elena (Salma Hayek), move in from Mexico.

At first the negotiations are firm but business-like, but when Chon and Ben refuse Elena’s offer, O is kidnapped and war is declared. Oliver Stone’s latest film is so vacuous it appears to be a homage to Quentin Tarantino, but where Tarantino is at least slick and stylish when it comes to callous violence and sociopathic killers, Stone is clumsy and unforgivably crude.

Matters are not helped by the fact that Ben, Chon and O are not particularly believable — former Marines and stoners who reap multi-million profits, and simultaneously host outreach programmes in Africa? — and nor do the trio of lead actors have what it takes to earn our sympathy.

The Mexican characters, meanwhile, have not one single redeeming feature between them. There is plenty of guns, girls, fighting and dope-smoking for the 16-year-old boys the movie was obviously made for, but anyone who prefers their thrillers to be even remotely plausible might want to give this one a miss.

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