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 crime lord Martin Cahill that both challenges and entertains the audience at a variety of levels, as well as reviving the vitality of the helmer’s earliest, mid-’60s pics. Though the movie looks set to re-establish Boorman as a 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 to the movie’s fortunes on the B.O. battleground.
With “The General,” Boorman’s first feature in three years, the 65-year-old helmer 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 a 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 unreality as, to a jazz soundtrack and woozy slow motion, Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) is gunned down outside his house by a lone assassin. The 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.
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 as many of the forces he affects to despise. 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, part ruthless gang leader, 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 that incomprehensibility (“Trainspotting,” “My Name Is Joe,” etc.) need not be a byword for accuracy.