Rarely has a veteran filmmaker rejuvenated his career to such startling effect as John Boorman with "The General," a fresh-off-the-slab biopic of maverick Irish crimelord Martin Cahill that both challenges and entertains the audience at a variety of levels, as well as reviving the vitality and freshness of the helmer's earliest, mid-'60s pics.

Rarely has a veteran filmmaker rejuvenated his career to such startling effect as John Boorman with “The General,” a fresh-off-the-slab biopic of maverick Irish crimelord Martin Cahill that both challenges and entertains the audience at a variety of levels, as well as reviving the vitality and freshness of the helmer’s earliest, mid-’60s pics. Though the movie looks set to re-establish Boorman as a major creative force in crix’s eyes after a decade or more of vacillating output, in commercial terms it’s still a specialized item for upscale urban auds and movie buffs. Latter, especially, will get an immediate charge out of the pic’s bold choice of b&w and widescreen, though for exhibs it reps a further limiting factor. Reviews, and its reception at Cannes, will be crucial for the movie’s fortunes on the B.O. battleground.

Boorman’s career the past quarter-century has been very scatter-gun, both commercially and thematically, making him one of the most unclassifiable of established names. For every well-crafted genre item like “Deliverance,” “Hope and Glory” and “Beyond Rangoon,” there’s been metaphorical or mystical oddities like “Leo the Last,” “The Emerald Forest” and “Where the Heart Is.”

With “The General,” his first feature in three years, the 65-year-old Boorman has not only come up with a pic that puts many British New Wave filmers half his age to shame in its energy and ’60s esprit, but he has poured all his love of his adopted homeland, Ireland, into a movie that says more about the rebellious Irish psyche than any heap of overtly political pictures.

Boorman’s choice of the retro format of b&w and widescreen gives the film a certain distance and stylization. But in its vigor and use of music and songs, “The General” at times reaches back to his first feature, “Catch us if You Can” (1965), and in its harder, more violent moments to his classic, California-set gangster movie “Point Blank” (1967).

Opening in an upscale Dublin suburb on Aug. 18, 1994, pic establishes a tone of almost dreamlike irreality as, to a jazz soundtrack and woozy slow motion, Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) is gunned down outside his house by a lone assassin. Rest of the movie is in the form of a long flashback leading up to his death.

After briefly sketching the rough upbringing of the young Martin (Eamonn Owens, from “The Butcher Boy”), we meet the adult Cahill as an already boisterous character in Dublin’s working-class slum neighborhood of Hollyfield, where he has a jokey but wary relationship with local cop Ned Kenny (Jon Voight). Cahill supports his wife (Maria Doyle Kennedy), four kids and sister-in-law (Angeline Ball) through thieving and burglary. When his apartment block is demolished, he simply encamps on the waste ground until the local authorities give him a fancy apartment of his choice.

These early scenes, acted and cut with energy, establish a tone of playful jousting between Cahill and the establishment that lays the ground for the character’s later downfall. Boorman’s Cahill is an independent rogue for whom traditional religious and political loyalties are as meaningless as the line between right and wrong. Fiercely loyal to his Hollyfield buddies, Cahill is an island even in his own country, secure in his self-assumed role as a working-class Robin Hood. An extraordinary sequence in which he burgles a wealthy house shows him fearlessly wandering its hallways while its occupants are still moving around.

Sans date titles, the film moves easily across the years, sketching his gradual rise from petty villain to local mobster, but still portraying Cahill as a likable rogue, effortlessly making dummies of the local cops. When the two women in his life want a house costing £80,000, he banks the amount in cash, gets a draft, and then arranges for the cash to be stolen from the same bank while he’s across the road establishing a watertight alibi at the local police precinct.

Pic assumes a more serious tone when Cahill plans to rob a jeweler’s that even the IRA reckons is impregnable. The edgy, nervy heist — one of the pic’s dramatic highlights — is successful (just), but with his devil-may-care cockiness, Cahill is already attracting the attention of the forces (especially the IRA) that will eventually destroy him.

Though there have been clear hints to this point that Cahill isn’t exactly the blarney-ful prankster we’ve been shown so far, it’s not until he calmly nails one of his gang members, druggie Jimmy (Eanna McLiam), to a pool table that the pic directly challenges the viewer’s complacency. Though espousing no political causes, Cahill is as ruthless and violent as many of the forces he affects to despise, though — controversially for those who like a movie to take a clear-cut position on its main character — Boorman’s script continues to discombobulate the viewer, matching every scene of Cahill’s darker side with one that’s played for anti-establishment comedy.

Spurning advances from the IRA for a cut of the jewelry heist, and now openly living in a menage a trois with his wife and sister-in-law (the latter now pregnant), Cahill careens on to his cheekiest robbery of all, an art gallery that holds the only Vermeer in private hands.

Apart from the sheer vivacity of the filmmaking, which continually challenges the audience to stay abreast of Cahill’s inventiveness, it’s the central perf by the chubby-faced Gleeson that dominates the movie. Part childlike joker (always shielding his face from the law), part ruthless gang leader (not above breaking legs to teach lessons), Gleeson’s Cahill is one of the screen’s most memorable psychopaths, leavened by the Irish thesp’s confident juggling of contrary moods.

Script’s only major fault is not developing the symbiotic relationship between Cahill and Kenny: The latter, relaxedly played by Voight with a passable Irish accent, largely disappears in the middle going, making a later heart-to-heart about each taking on aspects of the other’s personality less meaningful than it should have been.

Large cast of supports melds seamlessly, both in tone and ensemble playing. As the supportive but spunky women in Cahill’s life, Doyle Kennedy and Ball (both from Alan Parker’s “The Commitments”) make much more of their roles than their limited screen time would seem to offer; among the gang members, Adrian Dunbar and the older Sean McGinley gradually emerge as key players in the group. Smaller roles are cast with pinpoint care.

D.p. Seamus Deasy, better known for his docu work, rates a deep bow for his widescreen lensing, actually shot on color stock but printed (with none of the usual loss of gray scale or sharpness) in a hard black-and-white. Maeve Paterson’s costuming sketches the passing of time with subtle accuracy, and editing by Boorman regular Ron Davis is tight and fluid. A special nod is also due to Brendan Deasy and Douglas E. Turner’s digital soundtrack, which keeps the moderately accented dialogue clear at all times and proves incomprehensibility (“Trainspotting,” “My Name Is Joe,” etc.) need not be a byword for accuracy.

The General

Irish - British

Production

A Warner Bros. (in U.K.)/Sony Classics (in U.S.) release of a Merlin Films presentation, in association with J&M Entertainment. (International sales: J&M, London.) Produced by John Boorman. Executive producer, Kieran Corrigan. Co-executive producers, P.J. Pettitte, Betsy Davis. Directed, written by John Boorman.

Crew

Camera (B&W, Panavision widescreen), Seamus Deasy; editor, Ron Davis; music, Richie Buckley; production designer, Derek Wallace; costume designer, Maeve Paterson; sound (Dolby Digital), Brendan Deasy, Douglas E. Turner; assistant director, Kevan Barker; casting, Jina Jay. Reviewed at Warners preview theater, London, April 30, 1998. (In Cannes Film Festival, competing.) Running time: 123 MIN.

With

Martin Cahill - Brendan Gleeson Noel Curley - Adrian Dunbar Gary - Sean McGinley Frances - Maria Doyle Kennedy Tina - Angeline Ball Inspector Ned Kenny - Jon Voight With: Eanna McLiam, Tom Murphy, Paul Hickey, Tommy O'Neill, John O'Toole, Ciaran Fitzgerald, Ned Dennehy, Vinnie Murphy, Roxanna Williams, Eamonn Owens, Colleen O'Neill.

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