The makings of a masterpiece are visible in "Killing Them Softly," a thriller starring Brad Pitt as Jackie, a hit man investigating the robbery of a mob-protected card game. It's Pitt's second collaboration with writer-director Andrew Dominik after 2007's "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," one of the finest modern Westerns ever made; it's also based on a novel by George V. Higgins, whose hard-boiled "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" became a 1972 cult classic starring Robert Mitchum.
What's more, it's filled with fine performances. Scoot McNairy ("Argo"), as a jumpy stickup man, and Ben Mendelsohn ("The Dark Knight Rises"), as his self-sedating partner, are terrific; Ray Liotta plays against type as a soft-bellied scapegoat; Pitt is a quietly menacing presence. James Gandolfini may not be stretching as a mobster under stress (whiny wife, drinking problem), but he's the film's most complicated and compelling figure.
The problem: Dominik turns this potentially gritty crime flick into a soggy political metaphor for the 2008 financial crisis. Jackie and his mob liaison, Driver (Richard Jenkins), hold amusing discussions about murder as a way to reinspire confidence in the underworld economy ("the public angle"), but the constant background chatter from television sets seems like a cinematically lazy way to make a point. To hammer it home, George W. Bush yammers away during a robbery and Barack Obama's campaign promises echo through a destitute neighborhood.
This heavy-handedness extends to the overstylized violence and the overused pop songs, including the Velvet Underground's "Heroin" and Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around," though never the Roberta Flack hit that surely inspired the movie's title. "Killing Them Softly" ends with an angry speech railing against Obama, Thomas Jefferson and the welfare state. It isn't much of a payoff.
PLOT After a mobster's card game is robbed, a hit man comes looking for the culprits. RATING R (violence, language)
BOTTOM LINE A potentially tense and gritty crime flick, but writer-director Andrew Dominik turns it into a heavy-handed analogy of the 2008 financial crisis. Bail out on this one.
Brad Pitt's five highest-grossing movies
Brad Pitt returns to the big screen today with the crime drama "Killing Them Softly." Here are his five highest-grossing movies:
1. Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) $186,336,279
2. Ocean's Eleven (2001) $183,417,150
3. Troy (2004) $133,378,256
4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) $127,509,326
5. Ocean's Twelve (2004) $125,544,280