‘Killing Them Softly’ lacks life | 2 stars

“Killing Them Softly” has style and substance but not much soul and no real center.

It’s a simple crime movie with aspirations of political allegory and social commentary. But the characters are so unlikable it’s hard to empathize with anyone — despite some fine performances.

Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn play Frankie and Russell, two small-time hoopleheads hired to rob a mobbed-up card game.

It’s one of those foolproof crimes only fools would commit. The game is organized by Markie (Ray Liotta), a slightly bigger small-timer who once hired guys to rob his own game and later bragged about it. So, naturally, when Frankie and Russell show up to swipe the cash, the mob suspects Markie as the ringleader.

At this point, you’re probably wondering: Where’s Brad Pitt?

Pitt plays Jackie, the guy hired to find the guys who held up the game. Jackie’s task: to restore order, trust and normalcy to the local criminal underbelly. But Jackie isn’t exactly a hands-on guy. Of killing an acquaintance, Jackie says, “I like to kill them softly. From a distance. Not close enough for feelings. Don’t like feelings. Don’t want to think about them.”

It’s all a bit familiar.

“Killing Them Softly,” based on George V. Higgins’ novel “Cogan’s Trade,” strips away the glibness and romance of such films as “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” and replaces it with something more gritty and grim. While New Zealand director Andrew Dominik amps up both the violence and vulgarity (much of which is straight from Higgins’ novel), his film never escapes the long shadow of Quentin Tarantino.

At the same time, Dominik tries to add a layer of relevance with the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis and the handoff of power from President Bush to President Obama. The Coen brothers did something similar in “The Big Lebowski” with Gulf War I. But while the dialogue in “Lebowski” echoed the televised speeches of George H.W. Bush, the rhetoric of Bush II is just ever-present in the background, like party noise in a Robert Altman movie.

At first it’s clever. Talking heads chatter away about our financial security on car radios and bar TVs while gangsters hire hit men to restore trust in the underworld. After a while, though, it’s hard not to think: All right already, we get it: The film is a criticism of capitalism — like every crime story since Dashiell Hammett wrote “Red Harvest” more than 80 years ago.

Stylistically, “Killing Them Softly” is impeccably dank. The sun never shines. The streets are gray, and the light is brown. In a violent beat down in a storm, you can almost taste the blood, mud and rain. Bullets fly through car windows in slow motion, spinning webs of fractured glass.

But before you can become accustomed to the idea of an artful murder, Dominik shocks with a quick, remorseless rifle shot that explodes a skull like a popped balloon. He also goes way overboard in a scene where two guys shoot smack and fade in and out of consciousness (to the strains of Velvet Underground’s “Heroin,” of course). The scene’s relentless repetition undercuts its believability.

These moments of excess are especially disappointing because Dominik showed such elegant restraint in his previous collaboration with Pitt, “The Assassination of Jesse James.” Even the gunshots in that film sounded more realistic. In “Killing Them Softly,” every punch is a shotgun blast, and every shotgun fires like an anti-aircraft cannon.

Still, the acting is occasionally mesmerizing. By the film’s marketing, you expect the film to hang on Pitt’s smooth and seemingly effortless performance, but he’s merely a player in a skilled ensemble. James Gandolfini plays a lovelorn hit man prone to vile soliloquies about women and their body parts. Richard Jenkins is aggravatingly meek as the mob’s spineless middle manager. Mendelsohn’s smack fiend Russell reeks of filth.

Dominik limits the actors’ effectiveness, however, by editing conversations in alternating shots of talking heads, something suited more for television than movie screens.

The script also allows no room for the characters to grow. They are merely forces of nature, each as unfeeling as a car bumper on a collision course with the conventions of the genre. And without a single sympathetic character, the narrative wobbles.

“Killing Them Softly” follows Jackie’s mantra of keeping a safe distance from the audience. The film hits hard, but it never manages to pull us in.