When the gangster drama “The Kitchen” kicks into high gear, it’s exhilarating — giving the audience the same forbidden danger its women are feeling as they learn to navigate the man’s world of the Irish mob.
Writer and first-time director Andrea Berloff can’t quite sustain that intense vibe all the way to the end, but it’s good while it lasts.
The setting for Berloff’s adaptation of Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle’s DC/Vertigo graphic novel is Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, in 1978. It starts when three Irish mobsters — Kevin (James Badge Dale), Jimmy (Brian d’Arcy James) and Rob (Jeremy Bobb) — get caught during a hold-up by a pair of FBI agents (Common and E.J. Bonilla) who have been staking them out. The guys get three years in prison, and their boss, Little Jackie (Myk Watford), tells their wives that they’ll be taken care for.
Jimmy’s wife, Kathy (Melissa McCarthy), knows the truth, that Jackie’s payments to the women — Kevin’s wife, Ruby (Tiffany Haddish), and Rob’s long-abused wife Claire (Elisabeth Moss) — aren’t enough to make ends meet. Kathy also knows that a lot of the Hell’s Kitchen businesses haven’t been getting Jackie’s protection, for which they pay handsomely. So Kathy enlists Ruby and Claire to start taking over Jackie’s collections, paying some of Jackie’s muscle to make it stick.
The mob matriarch, Helen (Margo Martindale) — who is also Ruby’s constantly disapproving mother-in-law — warns the three that they are in over their heads. But the women show a surprising aptitude for crime. Kathy charms the neighborhood businesses, Ruby is a shrewd negotiator — particularly with Brooklyn mob boss Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp) — and Claire, after reuniting with an old crush, a contract killer named Gabriel (Domhnall Gleeson), blossoms as a stone-cold killer.
Berloff (who shared an Oscar nomination for her writing on “Straight Outta Compton”) and cinematographer Maryse Alberti (“Creed,” “Velvet Goldmine”) saturate the screen with the details of ‘70s New York, from the grimy, blood-stained streets to the main characters’ Farrah Fawcett flip hairstyles. Martin Scorsese’s characters would feel right at home, until they had to face the tough-as-nails women who, in their own words, “are through being beaten down.”
McCarthy and Haddish, both better known for their comedic skills, are rock solid doing drama. They manage to keep pace with Moss, one of the best actors working today, who makes Claire’s transformation from doormat to assassin downright chilling.
It’s such a difficult juggling act, keeping all the elements balanced, that it’s not too surprising that Berloff loses the handle in the final reel. The resolution feels like a cheat, a nod to Hollywood convention that the rest of “The Kitchen” avoids so well.
Opens Friday, August 9, in theaters everywhere. Rated R for violence, language throughout and some sexual content. Running time: 102 minutes.