Killing Them Softly is based on the crime novel “Cogan’s Trade”, which was published in 1974 and set in Boston. The film, however, changes the locale to New Orleans and sets it during the 2008 presidential election.
“Markie” (Liotta) runs illegal poker games for the local area mob bosses. There was a problem in the past when one of these games was robbed. The card games are shut down, but eventually reopen. In a moment of weakness, Markie admits he was behind the robbery. He isn’t killed, but instead receives a ‘pass’. But the understanding is clear: Do it again, and you’re dead.
That’s where “Squirrel” (Curatola) comes in. He’s an ex-con who runs a dry cleaners and thinks he’s a smart guy. His idea is to get two guys to hold up one of Markie’s current games, then let Markie take the blame. Squirrel goes to “Frankie” (McNairy), who he has worked with in the past, telling him to get another guy for the job. He shows up with “Russell” (Mendelsohn), who Squirrel doesn’t like but eventually okays. The robbery goes off without a hitch and once again the poker games are shut down, choking off the local criminal economy.
So they go to “Jackie” (Pitt) to resolve the problem. He’s convinced Markie wasn’t involved in the robbery this time because he’s certain that Markie isn’t that dumb. But he’s told by the bosses to rough him up anyway.
Meanwhile, Russell goes on a trip with someone Jackie knows and confesses that he did the robbery, and rats out everyone else. Once Jackie gets this information he asks Driver if he can bring in an outside man named “Mickey” (Gandolfini) to handle killing Squirrel (the two are friends). The bosses agree to pay Mickey his price. But that turns into more problems than it solves and it’s clear that it will be up to Jackie to handle all of the loose ends.
The adaptation of the novel to the big screen is very good, although perhaps we could have done without the heavy-handed messages about the economy and politics. There are frequent references to the 2008 presidential campaign (it amazes me that so many bars would be tuned into political speeches) and they don’t drive the story forward. Pitt’s performance is good, particularly in his scenes with Gandolfini, but the rest of the cast is only ordinary. However this is at least partially offset by the excellence and realism of the actual killings themselves.