The tropes, story arc, violence and stereotypes of mob movies are so ingrained that it’s nigh on impossible to do anything new with the genre.
The only novelty in the “true story” variant served up in “The Irishman” by Martin Scorsese, the master in the field, is excessive “epic” length and attempts to digitally de-age three giants of the genre — DeNiro, Pacino and Pesci.
So don’t punch up “The Ruthless,” a fact-based account of the Milanese mafia of the ’70s and ’70s and ’80s, and expect anything new. A generous take? It’s “Goodfellas” with subtitles, a career in crime about‘ Ndrangheta, an Italian mob run by men from Calabria (Southern Italy, the toe of the boot) and not Sicilians.
A compelling lead, brutal violence set in unfamiliar settings and period piece detail don’t put “Lo spietato” (the Italian title) on a par with Scorsese’s 1990 Liotta/Pesci/DeNiro masterpiece. It’s also not as compelling as the most famous Italian mob picture, the docu-drama “Gomorrah.”
But the real made-men who live these “Donnie Brasco” lives rarely realize what cliches they are. And it’s 90 minutes shorter than “The Irishman.” So why not?
“Ruthless” is a portrait of Santo Russo, played by the sleepy-eyed Riccardo Scamarcio of “Loro” and “John Wick: Chapter 2.” We meet him in 1990 at his self-satisfied peak, a penthouse with a view of Milan’s famed Madonnina gilded statue — the sava topping the city’s famous Cathedral, a yellow Lamborghini to tool around in.
But some guys he’s crossed on a dope deal show up and make some threats. That sends Santo into a reminiscence — an 85 minute flashback that takes him to his 1960s arrival in Milan, teen skirt-chaser in revolt against his mob-shamed father, busted for a crime he didn’t commit.
Prison is where Santo’s education begins with an initiation beating/head-dunking in a toilet from “Slim.” It takes no time for him to become as ruthless as everybody else.
“We Calabrians aren’t like Sicilians. We meet, talk and deliberate before we kill someone!”
The lengthy flashback, with periodic narration from Santo, takes him into the ’70s, a young thug on the make and on the rise, still teamed with Slim (Alessio Praticò), learning the crude art of armed robbery where savagery counts for more than cunning.
“I can honestly say,” he purrs in the narration (in Italian, with English subtitles), “I’ve never killed anyone who didn’t deserve it.”
His crew ingratiates itself with the higher-ups in the underworld, he meets the girl from his hometown (Sara Serraiocco), all grown up and pious — but not so pious that they don’t make a baby before their wedding day.
A “business” that Mariangela turns a blind eye to, even as she’s washing the blood out of his shirts, ambitions that rise from robberies and theft to kidnappings, extortion and murders, the tempation (Marie-Ange Casta) of another woman — an artist.
It’s all entirely too familiar.
Director and co-writer Renato De Maria (“Italian Gangsters”) makes few attempts to find anything fresh to say in all of this. The script’s “humor” is in the pregnant wedding, rushed because the cops bust in for Santo’s latest arrest, the priest hurrying through the vows and the obliging Carabinieri posing with the wedding party for photos, and in Santo’s beast-mode reaction to walking in on a gay conceptual artist friend of his mistress’s viewing/”happening” in the apartment he puts her up in.
It’s bloody. The swells in attendance think the savagery is all part of the show.
Scamarcio has an owlish menace about him that overcomes much of the over-familiarity of all this. The old-fashioned sexism — the women are almost literally Madonnas or Whores — isn’t excused by what is plainly intended as a cinematic throwback. The leading ladies come off as more interesting than the characters they’re playing, which helps.
The gaucherie, the ugly fashions and cool Alfa Romeos, Fiats, Jaguars, Ferraris and Citroens are little compensation for the weariness of the plot, the gruesome but not novel violence and the charmingly half-assed car chase shoved in here.
I’d say “Think of what SCORSESE could have done with this.” But hell, I’m not up for another three and a half hours married to the mob any more than you are.
Credits: Directed by Renato De Maria script by Renato De Maria, Valentina Strade and Federico Gnesini, based on the book “Manager Calibro 9” by Piero Colaprico. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:51