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'Kill the Irishman' revisits Cleveland's explosive mob past

In the 1970s, an underworld war made it Bomb City, USA. The new film tells the story of Danny Greene (Ray Stevenson), who challenged the Mafia.

March 09, 2011|By Mark Olsen, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Christopher Walken stars in "Kill the Irishman."
Christopher Walken stars in "Kill the Irishman." (Anchor Bay Films )

A quick rundown of well-known Mafia cities brings to mind places like New York, Chicago and Las Vegas. But Cleveland? Fuhgeddaboutit …

But there was a time — back in the 1970s — when the Ohio city was a raging mobster battleground. And when it came time to take out a rival, locals did more than bring a gun to a knife fight; they came on big and loud with all manner of explosives, earning Cleveland the moniker Bomb City, USA.

At the center of it all was not an Italian but a charismatic Irish American, Danny Greene, who spent part of his childhood in an orphanage, grew up to be a dockworker, rose to union boss and went head to head with the Mafia for control of the city's underworld economy of gambling, racketeering and loan-sharking. His story is chronicled in the new film "Kill the Irishman," starring Ray Stevenson, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer and Vincent D'Onofrio, which opens Friday.

"Cleveland would not be on your typical organized crime radar," said Rick Porrello, author of the book on which the film is based and now chief of police in the Cleveland suburb of Lyndhurst, where Greene was killed in 1977 by a car bomb. "But there were some pretty heavy hitters in the Midwest."

"That was a huge draw to me, that it was a mob story very powerfully and very conspicuously not set in Bensonhurst or Little Italy," said Jonathan Hensleigh, director and co-writer of "Kill the Irishman."

Stevenson, also in the upcoming "Thor" and "The Three Musketeers," takes on the title role. Needing to cast actors who could stand up to the 6-foot-4 Stevenson, Hensleigh half-jokingly referred to "Kill the Irishman" as "a movie of big men." Among the supporting players are Kilmer as a cop, Walken as rival mobster Alex "Shondor" Birns and D'Onofrio as Greene ally John Nardi.

Linda Cardellini and Laura Ramsey play Greene's wife and mistress, respectively, and the supporting cast is littered with character actors familiar from mob movies and TV shows such as "Goodfellas" and "The Sopranos."

The project got its start when Tommy Reid, a producer on the film, was attending Ohio State University in the mid-'90s. The New Jersey native heard stories from his college buddies about the rough streets of Cleveland but didn't believe them at first. After Reid landed in Los Angeles, a friend sent him a news story about Porrello's book and Reid optioned it even before it was published in 1998. (Reid also directed a documentary, "Danny Greene: The Rise and Fall of the Irishman," slated to be included on the DVD of "Kill the Irishman.")

Hensleigh, who previously directed "The Punisher" and worked as a screenwriter on movies such as "Die Hard: With a Vengeance" and "Armageddon," said Greene's story "was the classic cliché of life being stranger than fiction." After finishing Porrello's book, he recalled, "I said, 'I just have to do this.'"

Greene exhibited a bravado and media savvy that made him irresistible as a movie character. After Greene survived a bombing that essentially leveled his house, he put two mobile homes on the empty lot, one to live in and one to work in. He would then sit on a bench out front, essentially daring anyone to come and get him.

"As screenwriters, we're constantly asked to take characters who are actually quite despicable in real life and make them attractive," Hensleigh said. "But Danny Greene really was. He actually did put orphans through school and would buy 50 turkeys for the poor at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It doesn't get any better than this as a dramatist."

Though all involved would have preferred to film in Cleveland, the movie was ultimately shot in Detroit because of Michigan tax breaks. Said Hensleigh: "If we were to try to film in one city where we could replicate 1970s Cleveland, it would be Detroit."

"The landscape is part of the story," said Stevenson. "It was a slice of Americana, very particular. Without romanticizing it, this was among the last flurries of larger-than-life criminals walking the streets. The cars never got bigger, the mustaches, the lapels never got bigger."

As Hensleigh researched Greene, the sheer volume of newspaper articles and archival news footage he discovered made him realize the Irishman was, for locals at least, already verging on modern folklore. His film may just finally bring this regional antihero to a broader audience.

"For the folks who grew up around here, they all are very aware of it," said Clint O'Connor, film critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "What struck me was why wasn't this movie made 30 years ago? It's great stuff, there's so much in this whole saga. I think part of it is the whole Cleveland thing. If it had happened in New York or Vegas or Chicago, Martin Scorsese would have already made the definitive film."

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