Following "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" (2007), New Zealand-born writer/director Andrew Dominik reunites with Brad Pitt, returning to the bullets-and-bloodshed gang-

ster genre they obviously


Instead of the Old West, this is set in 2008 in post-Katrina New Orleans as outgoing-President George W. Bush faces the economic meltdown, making way for Oval Office successor Barack Obama, who speechifies: "Each of us has the freedom to make of our own lives what we will..."

So scheming Johnny Amato (Vincent Curatola) hires inexperienced, incompetent Frankie (Scoot McNairy), who recruits strung-out junkie Russell

(Ben Mendelson) to rob a lucrative, high-stakes poker game run by mob hustler Markie Trattman (Ray Liotta), who once pulled a similar heist on his own game. "You know they're gonna kill you?" Markie mumbles to Russell. That seems to be the inevitable consequence when one makes off with mob money.

Right on cue, Brad Pitt struts onto the scene, heralded by Johnny Cash's "The Man Comes Around," as the cool enforcer, Jackie Cogan, who likes to

"kill them softly" -- from a distance, without fuss or muss -- and engages in a talkathon with Driver (Richard Jenkins), the bespectacled Mob liaison with an aversion to cigarette smoke.

Based on George V. Higgins' pulpy, Boston-set crime novel, "Cogan's Trade," and financed by Megan Ellison, daughter of wealthy Larry Ellison, it's brooding and grimly brutal, revolving around seedy, low-

life thugs about whom no one cares and with only one fe-

male character, a black prostitute.

Aside from Pitt, the actors' faces are familiar. Ray Liotta was a "Goodfellas" mob boss. Vincent Curatola was Johnny Sack in "The Sopranos"; Scoot McNairy plays a hostage in "Argo"; and Ben Mendelson was a sociopath in "Animal Kingdom." "Sopranos" James Gandolfini appears as Mickey, another boozing/womanizing hit-man who knows he's about to lose everything, while Sam Shepard does a cameo.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Killing Them Softly" is a cynical, stylish 6, filled with violence, culminating in Pitt's final line: "America's not a country; it's a business..."

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