In 1960, Danny Greene and his childhood friends Billy McComber and Art Sneperger are longshoremen at the Cleveland docks. Meanwhile, the members are exploited by corrupt union boss, Jerry Merke and the leadership of the ILA union urges Greene to run against him. Meanwhile, Sneperger can't pay a gambling debt to Cleveland Mafia Capo John Nardi. In return for Sneperger's debt being forgiven, Greene supplies Nardi's crew with goods stolen from the docks. Merke finds out, demands a cut of Greene's profits, and then sends an enforcer to kill him. Instead, Greene beats up the enforcer, then beats up Merke, throws the union leader out of his office, and is later elected union president. He improves the working conditions at the docks while continuing his dealings with Nardi.
Greene's corruption is exposed by the Plain Dealer newspaper and Cleveland Police Detective Joe Manditski, who grew up with Greene in Collinwood, arrests him. Bankrupt and facing prison, Greene plea bargains to lesser charges in return for becoming an FBI informant and being banned for life from organized labor. Greene is released and moves his unhappy wife and daughters back to Collinwood. Nardi gets him work as an enforcer for Hungarian Jewish loan shark Shondor Birns, and later helps pitch a deal to Mafia Capo Jack Licavoli: Greene will force the city's garbage haulers to join the union Licavoli controls. Greene, McComber, Sneperger, and ex-Hells Angel Keith Ritson terrorize many into joining, but Greene's friend Mike Frato refuses. Licavoli orders Greene to kill Frato, but Greene balks because Frato has ten children. Nardi tells him privately, though, that, "You wanted to play in the big leagues. Sometimes you have to do things you don't wanna do."
As Greene prepare's to kill Frato with a car bomb, he learns from the FBI that Sneperger has returned to gambling, and has become an informant for Manditsky. That night, Greene assigns Sneperger to set the bomb under Frato’s car and presses the detonator as he does it. An enraged Frato later shoots at Greene in a park. Greene returns fire, kills Frato, and is arrested for murder, but released after Frato's driver tells Manditski that Greene acted in self-defense. Having had enough, Greene's long suffering wife leaves him and takes the children.
Greene sees his elderly Irish neighbor, Grace O’Keefe, being evicted. He intervenes, pays her rent, and she gratefully gives him her father's gold Celtic cross to wear for protection. Greene begins to use his money and connections to help other Irish-Americans in need, and earns the nickname "The Robin Hood of Collinwood".
Greene wants to open his own restaurant, and asks Shondor Birns to help him. Birns arranges a $70,000 loan from the Gambinos, but Birns' courier buys cocaine with the money and gets arrested. Birns and Greene argue over which of them should pay back the money; when Greene refuses to pay, Birns hires a hitman to kill him. Greene narrowly escapes, and later kills Birns with a car bomb.
After Mafia boss John Scalish dies, both Nardi and Licavoli are considered for succession. Licavoli is chosen due to his closer ties to the Five Families and decides to charge Greene 30% "street tax" for doing business in Cleveland. Greene refuses to pay, crudely mocks Licavoli's Italian heritage, and vows, "The Irishman's in business for himself now."
An outraged Licavoli has Greene's house blown up, but he survives. He then attempts to demote Nardi and take away his crew, only to have the latter join forces with Greene. Vowing to take over Cleveland together, Greene and Nardi start by organizing the murders of Licavoli’s associates, many of whom are blown up. Thirty-six car bombings occur during the summer of 1976, drawing national attention and humiliating Licavoli. After failing multiple times to kill Greene, Licavoli is forced to humbly ask Genovese boss Anthony Salerno to help him kill Nardi and Greene.
Having learned of this from the FBI, Greene claims that he wants to leave Cleveland and buy a ranch in Texas, but needs to raise $2 million. Wishing to size up their enemies, Greene and Nardi travel to New York and invite Salerno to invest in the ranch. After they leave, Salerno orders his associates to hire professional hitman Ray Ferritto to kill them both. Nardi is killed in a car explosion, McComber dies in a bombing at the Cleveland docks, and Ritson is shot near his house. Detective Manditski lets Greene know that a master killer is after him. He offers Greene protection, but is told, "My enemies will be taken care of."
After a dentist's appointment on October 6, 1977, Greene notices Ferritto driving by slowly, and accepts that he is about to die, giving his gold cross to an admiring boy. Ferritto detonates a bomb on the car next to Greene's, killing Greene instantly. An epilogue, by Manditski, reveals that the investigation of Danny Greene's murder led to the collapse of the Mafia, not only in Cleveland, but all over the United States.
Kill the Irishman had been in development since 1997. Producer Tommy Reid heard that Rick Porrello, an Ohio policeman, was about to publish a book about Greene called To Kill the Irishman. Reid flew to Ohio and met with Porrello, who told Reid his grandfather was a high-ranking Mafia figure in Cleveland during the prohibition era. The meeting went well, and on March 17, 1998, they signed a deal for the film rights to the book. Getting Kill the Irishman produced was difficult. Reid frequently left deals unconcluded, and discovered that the script he’d commissioned was attached to a cover with another screenwriter and producer’s name listed. According to Reid, this was a common occurrence in Hollywood, and he claims to have spent over $1 million to ensure the film was made.
Reid was a fan of mafia movies (including The Godfather and Goodfellas) and aspired to become a film maker. Being of Irish and Italian ancestry, he wanted to make a film that would relate to both nationalities. Reid first heard about mobster Danny Greene from his roommates in Ohio, and believed that New York City, Chicago and Boston were the "three meccas of mafia crime". According to Reid, there wasn't much documentation on Greene's life, but after hearing that Porrello was about to publish a book on Greene and the Mafia in Cleveland, he was determined to make a movie about him.
Prior to making Kill the Irishman, Reid did research on Greene's life and organized crime in Cleveland. He spoke with Sister Barbara Eppich, a nun, who helped raise Greene during his childhood. Sister Eppich told Reid of how Greene was abandoned during childhood and was raised by his grandfather. Because his grandfather worked nights, Greene was left to walk the streets. He would go to school dirty on a regular basis, so Sister Eppich would have to wash him. She also stated that Greene would sleep all the time, but was a "phenomenal athlete".
Reid spoke to number of law enforcement agencies, including the FBI. The FBI wanted to make sure that Reid wasn't glorifying the Mafia. Reid stated he had no intentions of glorifying crime, and that "the whole message at the end of the movie is that crime doesn’t pay". On a similar subject, Hensleigh also said the "film [doesn't suggest Greene] was a hero". However, he did note the film provides a balanced perspective.
While researching his role, Stevenson looked at TV footage of Greene, and read Porello's book; To Kill The Irishman. According to Stevenson, there was "quite a bit" of research material available. D'Onofrio, on the other hand, had the opposite experience. Information on Nardi was scarce, so Hensleigh allowed him to improvise on his character.
Although the screenplay was adapted from his book, Porrello had "minimum involvement" in its writing (most of which was done by Hensleigh). Hensleigh regularly contacted Porrello and they agreed not to use the real names of anyone who was still alive, "out of respect and sensitivity" towards them.
Due to the troubled development of Kill the Irishman, Reid decided to make a documentary about Greene's life; known as Danny Greene: the Rise and Fall of the Irishman. Due to the research he had done for the movie, Reid became specialized in the Northern Ohio crime scene and Greene’s life. Reid felt that by doing the documentary, at least he could go to his "grave 'saying I tried'". In 2009, with 17 hours of the documentary shot, Reid was told his film had been green-lit. He joined forces with production company Code Entertainment and engaged with a "reliable" director; Jonathan Hensleigh. They then signed actors Val Kilmer and Christopher Walken to the project. This was followed by the signing of actors Vincent D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket), Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas), and Irish actor Ray Stevenson, respectively. Stevenson was filming The Book of Eli when he got a telephone call from Hensleigh, so they arranged to meet in Los Angeles. According to Stevenson, he was drawn to the script and immediately made a deal.
On May 19, 2009, the film entered principal photography. It was shot within seven weeks, mostly in and around Detroit. This was partly because the city gave tax credits which Cleveland would not match. According to the 2009 report by the Michigan Film Office, Kill the Irishman received roughly $3 million in subsidies. Michigan's film rebate pays up to 42 percent of filmmakers' expenses for costs incurred while filming in the state. Ohio offers only 25 to 35 percent in subsidies, meaning that if the producers spent the same amount filming in Cleveland, they would have received $500,000 to $1.25 million less in subsidies. On the other hand, Stevenson said that they wanted to film in Cleveland, but the city had "prettied itself up" and changed, whereas Detroit was - in his opinion - still "on its knees".
Two incidents occurred during filming. On the first, seven bullet holes were shot into one of the trucks used during production. On the second, the cast and crew were driving from the set, and a pedestrian was shot in the neck outside a supermarket. The ambulance took 35–45 minutes to arrive, and waited a further 35–45 minutes for the police to arrive. The paramedics refused to take the victim to the hospital without a police escort. According to Stevenson, there was a possibility that rival gangmembers would shoot at the paramedics for trying to resuscitate the victim.
Due to the limited budget, some of the effects seen in the film couldn't be replicated. Stevenson said everyone "had to be on point", and that any mistakes couldn't be rectified by re-filming. For example, the producers couldn't afford to shoot the film's final scene (in which Greene is killed via a car explosion) twice. Before filming, the production crew and actors had to check everything on the set. Time was also lacking, with Stevenson saying everyone "had to be extremely focused".
Porrello had second thoughts about one scene being included in the film. This particular scene included the murder of two police officers. Porrello felt uncomfortable approaching Hensleigh, but did so anyway. Porrello said to him: "if you are going to kill a cop", it is "going to change the tone of the story". The scene was nevertheless included in the final cut.
Kill the Irishman received mixed-to-positive reviews from film critics. Giving the film a positive review, Mike LaSalle, of the San Francisco Chronicle, said; "What makes this film special and memorable is the character of Danny Greene, who is not the usual neighborhood hoodlum you see in movies, the kind who gets in deep and gradually loses his soul". Marshall Fine, of the Huffington Post, gave the film a mixed review. He criticized it for jumping through different events in a "jerky fashion", but summed up the review by calling it a "movie with a lot of meat on the bone, even if some of it is tough or stringy. It's not fancy, but it's always tasty".
Rotten Tomatoes reported that 63% of critics gave the movie a positive review, with an average rating of 5.6 out of 10. Whereas on Metacritic, the film has a score of 50 out of 100, indicating "mixed or average reviews". But despite the mixed-positive reception, a number of critics have called the movie a ripoff of Goodfellas. Robert Abele, of the LA Times, said "the film plays like an explosion's aftermath; shards of mob movies that add up to the usual Goodfellas knockoff". Scott Tobias, of the A.V. Club, had similar views; saying "the biggest problem" with the film "isn’t that it rips off Goodfellas", but that plenty of "good films" have "ripped it off well". In regards to the controversy surrounding Kill the Irishman and its purported similarities to Goodfellas, critic Dave Van Houwelingen said:
"There are certain movies that serve as a standard bearer for a genre – a high water mark that filmmakers always try to hit, but seem to always come up short. To me, I think Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas is that type of film for the gangster genre. In the 21 years since the film was released, so many filmmakers have tried so hard to copy Goodfellas' success, and so few have gotten even close to capturing the magic that Scorsese did in one of his very best films. The 21 years have been littered with a bunch of pale imitations. To that list, you can add Jonathan Hensleigh’s Kill the Irishman, which wants so desperately to be Goodfellas, and comes up so very, very short."
Hensleigh's directing was criticized. Scott Tobias said the directing "doesn’t do much beyond filling in the template". He noted that Hensleigh was telling the "true-life tale" of the mob's decline in Cleveland, but also said that "every character and setpiece felt like it fell off a truck". LA Weekly's Nick Pinkerton held similar views, saying that although "Hensleigh perks up when filming violence, the atmosphere throughout is past-prime, stymieing any strut". Lisa Schwarzbaum, of Entertainment Weekly, also concurred, calling the film's structure "pretty square".
Despite criticizing the film's structure, Schwarzbaum called the cast "tasty", and singled out D'Onofrio, Kilmer, and Walken for praise. Clint O'Connor, of The Plain Dealer, held similar views, saying the "film's greatest strength is its cast". On the contrary, David Rooney held the opposite opinion; saying the "low-wattage cast" is what turned the "potentially strong" film into a "routine crime thriller".
On its opening day, Kill the Irishman earned $42,925 from five theaters (with an average gross of $8,585 per theater). On its second day, the box office receipts increased by 46 percent; earning $62,446 from five theaters (with an average gross of $12,489 per theater). Then on the third day, the film's box office performance dropped by 36 percent; earning $40,059 from five theaters (with an average gross of $8,012 per theater). The gradual decline in box office receipts continued until the eighth day, where the film's gross sharply increased by 373 percent; earning $36,119 from 21 theaters (with an average gross of $1,720 per theater). The film continued to have periodic fluctuations at the box office. By the end of its box office run, Kill the Irishman grossed a total of $1,188,194 at the domestic box office, against a production budget of $12 million.
After a limited theatrical release, Kill the Irishman was released on DVD by Anchor Bay Entertainment on June 14, 2011. As of October 22, 2015, the movie has grossed $2,498,115 in domestic DVD sales.
The soundtrack for the film includes 26 songs.
Kill the Irishman contains four historical inaccuracies. This has been noted by critics, one of whom said the film's main problem is that it seemed "all too willing to sacrifice historical accuracy in the name of an easy-to-digest narrative". Shondor Birns was murdered on March 29, 1975, whereas in the film this occurs on March 8. The movie also misspells the name of a nearby parish known as 'St. Malachi's'; in the movie it is spelled 'St. Malichy's'.
In the movie, Greene kills Shondor Birns by detonating a bomb on his car. In reality, even though Birns was killed by a car bomb, there was no evidence to link Greene to his murder. Even though it is commonly speculated that Greene killed Birns, his murder remains officially unsolved.
In the movie, Greene discovers his friend Art Sneperger is about to become an informant, so he decides to kill him in a car bombing. Greene has Sneperger place a bomb on Mike Frato's car, and as he is doing it, Greene detonates the bomb early, killing Sneperger in the process. In reality, Greene was questioned by the police, but was never proved to have killed Sneperger.