Polygram has a tough sell with “Resurrection Man,” a Stygian gangster drama that has the double handicap of being set against the B.O.-unfriendly background of Ulster’s sectarian troubles and possessing an unforgivingly tenebrous tone that many with find a turnoff. There’s much to admire in this chilling second feature by Marc Evans (“House of America”), particularly in its off-center, almost impressionistic approach to the gangster-thriller genre, but the result is more a good college try than a rounded work.
Pic opens in January 1975, when “the streets are in turmoil and gangsters draw boundaries in blood”; though the city is never named, it’s clearly in Northern Ireland (doubled, convincingly, by locations in Manchester, Liverpool and Warrington, in mainland Britain). Victor Kelly (Stuart Townsend) is a brooding young psychopath, introduced along with his gang beating up “an enemy” and then killing him. A TV news item about the slaying attracts the attention of a journalist, Ryan (James Nesbitt), and his older, more philosophical colleague, Coppinger (James Ellis).
Victor’s gang — the Resurrection Men — manages to strike fear into a city already numbed by sectarian violence, and he attracts the eye of an older hood, McLure (Sean McGinley), who hires him for a kneecapping job. When the job doesn’t go quite according to plan, a local cop, Herbie (Derek Thompson), starts putting the squeeze on one of Victor’s gang members, Hacksaw (B.J. Hogg).
Meanwhile, Ryan, who’s pretty screwed up himself, has become obsessed with Victor — and the media myth he has helped to create. Gradually, he becomes drawn into a bloody endgame as Victor spirals out of control and McLure sets out to destroy the young monster he has encouraged.
From its opening images, the movie has an apocalyptic tone that’s heightened throughout by baleful music and the use of religious classical extracts, including Verdi’s “Force of Destiny.” Characters, and their exact relationship to one another, are hardly explained, and, especially during the first half, pic demands considerable concentration to work out exactly what’s going on. Evans’ approach to what is, in essence, a fairly simple storyline, is certainly ambitious, mixing in direct-to-camera interviews with people talking about Victor and his upbringing (watching Cagney movies, etc.) as well as leaving sizable lacunas in the narrative. The movie could almost have the handle “Scenes from a Psycho Gangster’s Life.”
That much is fine, and the pic successfully sustains its atmosphere of appalling violence (shown and imagined), climaxing in a creepy sequence set in a deserted public bath that has an almost vampiric chill. Where the film is far less successful is in concocting a compelling bond between Victor, the hood hooked on celebrity, and Ryan, the journalist hooked on a good story.
Eoin McNamee’s script, from his novel, is simply too structurally loose to carry the parallel stories of two dysfunctional human beings, caught in each other’s web, through to a satisfying conclusion. In the end, pic is much more Victor’s story — a latter-day Cody Jarrett who’s idolized by his Ma (Brenda Fricker) and excites a certain kind of woman (Geraldine O’Rawe) but has nowhere to go except in a hail of bullets.
Casting is strong down the line, headed by an amazing turn by Townsend (last seen as the nerdy co-lead in caper comedy “Shooting Fish”) as Victor. He’s surrounded by proven character talent, especially John Hannah as a hood past his prime, McGinley as the always-in-control McLure, Nesbitt as the seedy journo and Thompson and Ellis as older, wiser characters. On the distaff side, O’Rawe briefly sizzles as Victor’s barmaid pickup, Fricker is solid as Victor’s mom, and Zara Turner briefly affecting as Ryan’s battered wife.
Production values are on the modest side but atmospheric enough, especially Pierre Aim’s lensing, which has an authentically sickly ’70s look in its color processing.