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Fighting Irish

A new clan is muscling in on Hollywood's Italian American gangs, and they're not singing soprano.

July 10, 2006|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

THE Italian American underworld has had a good run in American pop culture over the last three decades: "The Godfather," "GoodFellas," "Casino." But after Tony Soprano, what's left to say?

Now, a scruffier, more reckless group is muscling its way onto center stage to sate that audience fascination for crime, corruption and unruly families: the Irish Americans.

These characters drink hard, fight hard and love hard and think nothing of settling slights with violent payback. Their families are often large enough to include criminals, priests, cops, politicians and the labor movement in the extended clan, though any of them is as likely to be crooked as any other.

With histories tying them to their communities over generations and with so many tendrils of connections, these Irish American clans open a wide swath of story possibilities to explore, at a time when Mafia families appear to have run their course.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 12, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
"Rescue Me": A story in Monday's Calendar about the new wave of television shows about Irish Americans said that "Rescue Me" character Tommy Gavin beat his brother for sleeping with Gavin's ex-wife. Gavin and his wife are still in the process of divorcing on the show.

David Chase, the creator of "Sopranos," "has killed the Italian mobster for all time," said Blake Masters, co-executive producer of one of the new Irish-themed TV shows: Showtime's "Brotherhood," which premiered Sunday, about two brothers on opposing sides of the law in Providence, R.I.

Following later this fall and winter will be an Irish American movie from Martin Scorsese and a new TV show from "Crash" writers Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco.

"Brotherhood" follows the complex and ever-shifting alliances of the Caffee brothers -- Tommy, a state politician, and Michael, a brutal criminal -- who each sport identical gang-style tattoos on their wrists. The Caffees' extended family lives in a working-class neighborhood in a dense, industrial-looking section of town with vestiges of powerful public unions and ward politics. The city's decaying homes, shops and factories suit its characters, who are marked by resentment and suspicion, good and evil, Masters said.

Tommy's family may be upwardly mobile, but success isn't necessarily the goal. "In the Irish ideal, you're going to get beat down by the cops, you're going to get your neighborhood stolen, of course you're going to lose your job, so you bond in these clans," Masters said. "And so the style with which you go down swinging is important."

Some say it's about time Irish American mobsters get their cultural due.

"There hasn't been any definitive movie that really showed the Irish American gangs," said Jon Favreau, director of "Made," a 2001 comedy about low-level gangsters in New York's heavily Irish and Italian Hell's Kitchen. "There is a lot of fantastic mythology surrounding them. A lot of those stories are 40 years old now. They're ripe for reinvention," he said.

"One of the things about the Irish American underworld, it always overlapped into politics and police and the labor movement, so there's a lot to work with there," said T.J. English, author of "Paddy Whacked," a history of the American Irish underground that the History Channel turned into a documentary this year. One character, Boston's Whitey Bulger, the last of the larger-than-life Irish American outlaws, has yet to be explored in either television or film. Facing arrest for murder, Bulger vanished in 1995.

Both "Brotherhood" and "The Departed," a film due this fall from Scorsese, owe something to Bulger, often viewed as the murderous seed in a large family, and his brother Billy, president of the Massachusetts Senate for years. "The Departed," a remake of an Asian film about a police mole infiltrating the mob who meets a mob mole infiltrating the police, is Scorsese's second foray into the Irish American gang world after 2002's "Gangs of New York."

The new wave of storytelling details the sharpest double-edged elements of the Irish American culture already stamped in the popular imagination as a rough-and-tumble world where almost anything goes, but one in which religion and guilt still play a key role. Characters played by James Cagney in such films as 1931's "The Public Enemy" (Mike, an upstanding soldier tries to help his wayward brother, Tom) or 1938's "Angels With Dirty Faces" (Jerry, a priest, tries to help his childhood friend Rocky, a criminal) set the stereotypes.

More recently, Irish American characters moving into the middle class can't escape their troubled milieus. Plots, sometimes dark to the point of dreary, often pit brothers or former childhood friends against one another. In "Mystic River" (2003) and FX's "Rescue Me" (starting in 2004), men cross over to the wrong side of the law almost as easily as not.

The troubled, violent childhoods of the three main characters in "Mystic River" -- an alcoholic ex-con, a mental wreck and a homicide detective -- resurface when one of their children is murdered. A false accusation is enough to lead one to stab and shoot another in retribution.

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