Brad Pitt could easily coast on his pretty-boy looks and be done with it. He'd gobble up expendable rom-com and action roles, collect millions and further extend his box-office reign.

But the reliable actor is better than that, having built a respected career from roles that challenge him yet still play to his strengths. His recent streak of strong performances -- from 2006's somber "Babel" to last year's fast-pitch "Moneyball" -- continues with Andrew Dominik's hard-boiled but overdone "Killing Them Softly."

The crime drama set in New Orleans marks the second collaboration between Pitt and the talented Dominik; the first was "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," a rewarding slow-mover that hogtied the Old West mythos to the cult of celebrity that clouds contemporary culture.

As an actor, Pitt -- who also serves as producer on "Killing" -- benefits tremendously from the partnership. Playing a mob enforcer rubbing out the wrongs when two fellas rip off card players during an underground game, the frequent Oscar nominee shows depth and maturity. Pitt's always been a showman, but his character, Jackie Cogan, is an observer, witnessing the histrionics of desperate folks unraveled by avarice and their own demons. Once he's finished watching the human tragedy unfold, Jackie calmly performs his duty, coordinating bullets into heads. However, Jackie wants clean bloodshed -- without all that messy pleading. He prefers to "kill them softly," so to speak, as he explains to his go-between, a fussy lawyer (Richard Jenkins).


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Yes, Jackie's one fascinating character in one darkly humorous and cynical film.

As he did with "Jesse James," Dominik -- a New Zealand native -- puts America in his cross hairs and hits the target with force. Unfortunately, it's too much force, and his attempt to link the crazy capitalist mindset with that of crazy organized crime thinking is aggressively overplayed. We understand the parallels he's drawing early on, yet he relies on too many scenes featuring TV and radio warbling on about the economy melting down and the 2008 Obama-McCain election. That said, Dominik makes his point with titanium conviction, showing how fat cats assembled around a card game flippantly toy with other people's money, just like the Wall Street suits did as their financial house of cards collapsed.

In "Killing," it's the inane actions of two jumpy guys for hire that trigger the mob's financial nose dive. The slightly smarter Frankie (a dead-on Scoot McNairy) and the drugged-out, sleazy Russell (a creepy Ben Mendelsohn) set it in motion, and loose-lipped, low-level crime guy Markie (Ray Liotta, never better) winds up bearing the brunt of the blame. Jackie comes in to readjust the situation, tagging his former collaborator Mickey ("The Sopranos" James Gandolfini) to help with the hits.

But Mickey's one hot mess, a jealous and paranoid alcoholic. Gandolfini chews up the part, exposing Mickey's vicious streak and shattered ego while chugging martinis -- a lethal mix. The scenes between Pitt and Gandolfini are the highlights of "Killing," with the two actors pivoting off each other with the ease and precision of gymnasts.

Equally on target is Dominik's street-wise script, based on a George V. Higgins novel. His screenplay is anchored around real-deal dialogue that rarely feels forced in the way the direction occasionally does.

The script, like many of "Killing's" attributes -- the decaying, rundown New Orleans atmosphere, the brutal violence choreographed with sleek artistry, and the characters' perfectly selected clothing -- almost makes you overlook its ham-handed moments. Then along comes another political speech, and you can't entirely forgive it.

"Killing Them Softly" really should have sought counsel from its own title and treaded more softly. Then it truly would have hit its mark.

Contact Randy Myers at rmyers@bayareanewsgroup.com.

'Killing Them Softly' *H*
Rating: R (for violence, sexual references, pervasive language, and some drug use)
Cast: Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Richard Jenkins, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn
Director and screenwriter: Andrew Dominik
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes