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Review: 'The General' delivers brutal crime with a smile

Web posted on:
Tuesday, December 22, 1998 1:05:18 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- It's odd that I was just recently comparing the Russian movie "The Thief" to John Boorman's "Hope and Glory," a marvelous comedy/drama that had been receding from my day-to-day movie consciousness for quite some time now. (Don't think that that "consciousness" carries any intellectual weight, by the way. I'm the type who'll spend 20 minutes of my afternoon considering the cool way Jack Nicholson walks in "The Last Detail." And I still found someone who wants to marry me!)

Boorman's latest movie is a highly praised study of Irish crime and civil disobedience called "The General." Surprisingly enough, this true story turns out to have as much in common with "Hope and Glory" as any other film Boorman's ever directed.

Both films deal with subject matter that, by any measure, deserves to be handled somberly, but Boorman invests the proceedings with an unexpected amount of humor and good cheer. In fact, this time he may have ended up with something that's too lighthearted for its own good. It wouldn't occur to me to painstakingly warm the audience up to a character for an hour or so, then suddenly have him hold one of his friends down and (quite literally) nail him to a pool table.

Even though "The General" won Boorman the Best Director award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, it's not nearly as formidable an achievement as "Hope and Glory" is. I do think, though, that Boorman approaches the material in a manner that no other current director would even attempt, much less successfully pull off as often as he does. The way things are going in the industry right now, that alone would be enough to make me respect the movie to some degree; the odd tone may not always feel right, but it certainly doesn't sink the ship. And Boorman tells a story like a real pro.

Based on a real-life legend

That story is based on the real-life legend of Martin Cahill, an obstinate Dublin gangster who was the brains behind a series of heists in 1980s Ireland. Brendan Gleeson (of "I Went Down," "The Snapper," and several other films that needed a thick, lumbering Irish type) plays Martin in a performance that may very well garner him an Oscar nomination when they start considering that stuff early next year.

Gleeson looks like the kind of guy whose main goal in life is nothing more than another dose of beer and football, but Martin is written as a theatrically garrulous malcontent for most of the movie.

The opening scenes, during which the stubborn ex-con simply refuses to move his family from the building they live in -- even as the city is tearing the place down -- are very funny. Never relenting to the pressures of local bigwigs (including his archenemy, a weary police chief played with a remarkably flawless brogue by Jon Voight), he eventually winds up sleeping solo in a tent on the now-flattened site.

This all seems goofy while being very honorable (nobody's going to push our Martin around), but when he abandons the tent after he's promised a fancy new apartment in a better section of town, we start to understand what's going on.

Martin fancies himself a revolutionary, but not the kind who plays on the IRA home team ... a flaw that will eventually prove to be fatal. He despises the police as well as the Church, viewing them as tools of oppression, but his allegiances aren't the Robin Hood, stand-up-for-the-little-guy trip that Martin wants everyone to think they are.

Over-romanticized villainy

The big problem with the movie is that he sometimes seems to charm Boorman into believing the ruse. As his life of crime builds steam, Martin gets more and more ambitious. However, by the time he steals an armful of rare paintings from a local collector, Boorman is practically getting giggly.

Martin was a character, alright, even in his home life. Maria Doyle Kennedy plays his amazingly understanding wife, but things get pretty complicated when she gives Martin the OK to go ahead and sleep with her cute younger sister (Angeline Ball). Sis lives in the house with them, and the house gets even more crowded when Martin gets her pregnant.

In between pulling self-serving courtroom and police station stunts, Martin has to juggle the problems of maintaining a crime gang as well as the gang in his living room. There's a bigness of spirit to the domestic scenes that once again camouflages his meaner instincts.

But even most of the criminality, aside from that nasty pool hall crucifixion, is painted as harmless joshing. The other guys in the gang (Adrian Dunbar plays the co-leader) follow Martin around like they're innocent puppies chasing after a new master. The ways that Martin and his crew outfox the cops are obvious and ingenious at the same time, although Boorman lays it on a little thick every now and then.

For example, Martin gets around being tailed by the police by letting them drive behind his car all the way to the far countryside, where they eventually run out of gas. Martin, though, has extra gas in a can in the back seat. He then fuels up and tears off to retrieve his stolen booty as the embarrassed cops sit by the side of the road.

It's amusing, but also manages to kill any real tension. Martin so obviously won't get caught, it's not long before you couldn't care less about the police. His humorous appearances on TV newscasts and in the papers also smooth over some pretty rough edges.

That might be the point, though. Cahill eventually grew too comfortable with his backwards form of celebrity, and paid for it big-time when he got his head blown off one sunny morning in 1994. (I'm not ruining anything by telling you that; you see it at the very beginning of the movie.) I would imagine that a lot of his hijinks (if not all of them) are based on fact, but that doesn't mean that you have to present him as a gangster version of Andy Kaufman.

If his entire life was a performance, it must have torn at the fabric of his existence to a much more damaging degree than Boorman lets on. There should have been many more moments during the movie when all the kidding was set aside, allowing us to see some real fear and anxiety. Cahill finally got a lot more than he may have deserved, but it's not always apparent that Boorman feels he deserved any comeuppance at all.

"The General" is a pretty strange movie. There's some sickening violence, lots of profanity, and a bunch of huggy-kissy scenes, too. It's shot in memorably gorgeous black-and-white by cinematographer Seamus Deasy, another possible Oscar contender. Rated R. 129 minutes.

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