The players in our two battling movies this review are gun-toting rogues, so we’ll have to let them shoot it out across the room while we duck under the tables. Armed and lethal in the challenger’s corner is Killing Them Softly, a dark, moody crime drama featuring Brad Pitt as a hit man tasked with eliminating the crew that robbed an illicit card game. That film points its barrel at the breezily violent cult hit, True Romance, with Christian Slater as a comic book store clerk whose involvement with a hooker leads him to murder and a high-risk drug deal.
Both films rely on humanizing their criminals with generous amounts of tangential dialogue, and both also lean heavily on music and artsy cinematography to set a pop, breezy tone in counterpoint to some pretty brutal action by their principals.
Vicious contenders, these two. Let’s see who’s left after the gun smoke clears.
Three boneheads played by Vincent Curatola (Johnny Sack in The Sopranos), Scoot McNairy (Argo) and Ben Mendelsohn (The Dark Knight Rises) plan the armed robbery of a Mob-sanctioned card game. They’re confident of success because the Powers That Be will likely finger the guy running the game (Ray Liotta) as the plotter of the heist, since he once pulled off a similar insider attempt and bragged about it to his pals. We’re not talking nuclear physicist-level IQs here, folks.
Compounding this outrageously bad idea, one of these geniuses soon lets slip to a friend that he and his buddies are the real “masterminds” of the crime. So much for the frame-up attempt. The aggrieved organization’s higher-ups then dispatch chatty hit man Jackie Cogan (Pitt) to track down and deal with the guilty parties. We can be reasonably sure he won’t do this through subtle negotiation and diplomacy.
Killing a trio of dull-witted crooks is a straightforward task, one would think, except that it’s complicated by bureaucracy in the form of the organization’s ineffectual middle management liaison (Richard Jenkins). Another problem is Mickey (James Gandolfini), a hit man brought in to help with the job who ends up doing little but drinking to excess and utilizing the services of local hookers. Well, at least he isn’t out ripping off backroom poker games.
It’s hard to think of a stupider way to make yourself a target than robbing a card game run by organized crime. Unless, of course, you marry a hooker and kill her pimp, then steal a few kilos of the pimp’s cocaine while you’re at it. Which, coincidentally, is what happens to our comic book store clerk hero Clarence (Slater) in True Romance. Furiously improvising his way through the situation, he goes on the run with that hooker/wife, Alabama (Patricia Arquette), to California. This, on the generally correct assumption that people in Los Angeles do little but aspire to movie stardom and consume vast quantities of drugs.
It turns out the coke Clarence ripped off was in turn stolen by his victim. The true owners of the stuff quickly sniff our man’s trail, and give rapid and effective chase. Meanwhile, Clarence forcefully lobbies, through his L.A. acquaintances, to sell all that powder to a rich, crass movie producer. That’s the way to make it in Hollywood, folks – use your contacts!
Ramping up the stress level is a pair of detectives who soon discover what this new kid in town is up to. Since this is a movie from a script by Quentin Tarantino, all sides chasing, selling, or snorting the dope converge, leading to a bloody shootout with a high body count.
Both movies are stylized, hyper-violent sagas about lowlifes trying to outwit each other. Killing Them Softly takes a slow, arty approach, courtesy of Kiwi writer/director Andrew Dominik, who adapted George V. Higgins’ gritty crime novel Cogan’s Trade. Dominik lingers on the proceedings, with long takes and extended conversations between the principals. Unfortunately this also means many pointlessly drawn-out scenes. For example, do we really need the excruciatingly detailed sequence where Liotta gets pummeled nearly to death by two Mob thugs?
Although made in 1993, True Romance is polished with a 1980s-style high budget gloss, thanks to its director, the late Tony Scott, who will forever go down in movie history for making the lousy yet somehow iconic Top Gun, one of the big hits of the era. Scott was never a particularly inspired director, but he does a good job here staying true to Tarantino’s unique mix of ultra-violence and humor. He also directs crisply; the film is well paced, its story is clear, and the characters believably desperate and funny.
Dominik was obviously influenced by Tarantino as well; you can smell it in the many extended conversations between his characters. Quentin’s a hard guy to ape because his dialogue is so rich and distinctive, as is the fluid way he directs conversations. In Killing Them Softly, the characters constantly flap their gums but their chatter is boring to listen to and uninteresting to watch. Dominik tries to deepen the proceedings by frequently playing TV and radio news dialogue about the financial crisis of 2008, when this film is set. The repeated audio presence of George W. Bush, John McCain and Barack Obama plays almost like an annoyingly repetitive musical soundtrack. True Romance instead relies on such artists as Shelby Lynne, Chris Isaak and the Shirelles to set the tone. Maybe not the most impressive collection of tunes, but still better than W. Bush, et al.
Killing Them Softly works best during its tense and well paced card game robbery, but that one good stretch can’t save the movie. Ultimately, it feels like an ill-conceived marriage of art film, political treatise and bloody crime caper featuring only the unappealing facets of all three genres. True Romance is a breezy ride that does a much better job mixing hard-to-blend components; the humor, the violence, and the many story elements don’t feel like they’re forced together. In fact, they complement each other to make a solid, highly entertaining movie. Bam! The final round in our little shootout puts Killing Them Softly out of its misery. Our winner, then, with much better aim and style to spare, is True Romance.