Nice ironic title.

No, it has nothing to do with Lori Lieberman’s song about the experience of hearing Don McLean sing (“Killing Me Softly With His Song,” whose hit version was by Roberta Flack). It’s about a hit man named Jackie Cogan who prefers not to get up close and personal when he plies his trade.

It’s a messy business killing people, says Jackie. Victims tend to behave emotionally – or worse. “It’s murder. And they’re so squeamish,” Jackie says in another context. So he tells people “I like to kill ’em softly. From a distance.”

Just how “soft” these killings are is one of the things Andrew Dominik’s ultra-tough and ironically funny movie is about. The answer to that is “not very.” The murders in this movie are brutal. The loud noises make you jump. The blood is ugly, plentiful and messy. The faces of the victims register pure terror.

The other subject is murder as a business like any other, or as Calvin Coolidge once put it “the business of America is business ain’t it?” (Michael Corleone: “It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.”) Jackie thinks that and he’s having a lot of trouble doing business with the fellow appointed by the mob (a lawyer, apparently; Jackie calls him “counselor”) to be his mission supervisor and paymaster.

It’s a different mob these days. “Total corporate mentality” is the problem (see “squeamish” comment above).

When we first see professional assassin Jackie, our writer/director has given us a quick run-through of precisely how worthless are the guys who will be his targets. Then and only then do we get a sense of Jackie, a very together, purposeful fellow who’s very good at what he does and likes to do it with a minimum of inefficiency and wasted motion.

He’s played by Brad Pitt in another one of the performances that have made him one of the more reliable and satisfying film actors we’ve got – a guy who always seems good at knowing what movies to make and why, however off the beaten commercial path they might stray. This one was written and directed by Dominik, the stylist who likes pseudo-documentary textures and who worked with Pitt before in “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” a good movie from a worthy novel with very little commercial appeal (no “corporate mentality” on that one, that’s for sure).

When we first see Jackie, the movie wittily announces his advent with Johnny Cash singing “there’s a man going round taking names” on the soundtrack.

It all takes place in rain-soaked Louisiana, not the Boston of George V. Higgins’ 1974 novel “Cogan’s Trade.” (The Pitt influence, no doubt; remember Pitt’s post-Katrina dedication to resurrecting New Orleans.)

I’m not sure why there was so much rain every time something brutal goes down. What’s obvious otherwise is that Dominik is not a fellow interested in showing you how picturesque slums are – or lowlife people either. What happens here happens in ugly places you might not want to be caught dead in. The major targets in the movie are very scummy people indeed – lowlifes a lot lower than the usual movie ilk.

The two guys who set the action in motion, in fact, seem like the scum of the earth, stupid junkies so pungently aromatic when they enter a room that even other lowlifes think they’re “animals.” They’re often too dumb even to be funny, a la the underworld folks in movies by Quentin Tarantino, the Coen brothers and Guy Ritchie.

The action in question is a heist of a regular card game hosted by a cheerful, semi-desperate Ray Liotta. There was a heist of the same game once before, years ago, but no one’s afraid to do it again because, numbskull that he is, the card game’s thieving proprietor copped to engineering that old heist himself and enjoying the profits. So it’s a freebie just lying there in the worst part of town – just waiting for some new numbskulls to knock it off so that the proprietor will, once again, be blamed.

Which, of course, he is. It’s just one of the problems Jackie has to deal with. In that case, it’s bad PR for the mob running the game. You’ve got to have clean games to attract money, otherwise you’re going to lose business.

The counselor is played by the consummately mordant Richard Jenkins.

Another hit man – whose alcoholic, sexaholic life is skidding sharply downhill after a run-in with an evil Jezebel – is played by James Gandolfini with characteristic menace and heavy breathing through pinched nostrils.

The film tries to make much of the hit man’s trade being emblematic of the business ethics of the 2008 economic catastrophe, but not very well. All the business thuggery works, mind you, just not its metaphorical stretch.

There’s a lot of talk in it, but unless Pitt, Jenkins and Gandolfini are on screen, don’t expect it to have Tarantino/Coen/Ritchie underworld verve. These are really stupid guys, and not picturesquely stupid either.

The movie is entertaining but has odd continuity errors we’re not supposed to notice – a marauder wields a sawed-off shotgun one second, a revolver the next; Gandolfini quaffs a half-full glass of beer after draining all of it two seconds before in one massive swig.

Maybe the director was directing them softly – not wanting to get too “up close and personal,” perhaps.

killing them softly

Three stars

Starring: Brad Pitt, Ray Liotta, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins

Director: Andrew Dominik

Running time: 96 minutes

Rating: R for language, brutal killing, sexual references and some drug use.

The Lowdown: A hit man who’s all business has to clean up messes left by incompetents and lowlifes.