Although its premise of a young man venturing on his own in the big city is nothing new, writer-director David Gleeson’s “Cowboys & Angels” focuses the familiar idea on hipster 21st century Ireland. Pic drifts onto a familiar obstacle course for its wide-eyed hero, but displays a spirited, open-hearted goodness along the way. Combination of warmth, humor, danger and a cosmopolitan take on young, urban Eire sets pic distinctly apart, and positive fest responses signal healthy coin in a wide range of markets, starting with its local July opening and Sept. 19 Gotham bow.
From the pulsing opening montage of present-day Limerick, Gleeson’s tyro work seems determined to upend a whole basketful of presumptions about the typical Irish film. No strumming harps or whistling Uilleann pipes intrude on Stephen McKeon’s modern score, and no alluring grassy farmlands appear in Volker Tittel’s sharp camera work. Everything that happens in “Cowboys & Angels” indicates that nouveau Ireland is very much a part of the Euro mainstream.
Shane (Michael Legge) has landed a boring government office job, and needs to find an apartment. Fortune links him with Vincent (Allen Leech), a gay fashion design student who’s also apartment-hunting. The new roomies are a study in contrast: Vincent has a laser-like queer eye for Shane’s straight guy, but doesn’t fully grasp Shane’s loneliness or the envy Shane feels about Vincent’s smooth social graces.
In fact, Vincent is so metrosexually together that he even has a girl to cuddle — foxy Gemma (Amy Shiels), while Shane can only longingly watch her at the Americanized fast food outlet where she works. Though gay auds may wish the pic focused on the more colorful Vincent, Gleeson’s interest in Shane is more rewarding in the end, since the script traces real changes that affect this innocent, and the dark-eyed Legge interprets Shane with an alive, moment-to-moment sense of wonder, nausea and even terror.
Limerick’s roughest ‘hood is pretty mild by most big city standards. But Shane accidentally discovers a baggie with drugs on the street belonging to his neighbor Keith (a brooding but surprising David Murray). Keith catches Shane with his drugs and gently recruits him to run cash to Dublin for heroin.
Shane’s first run goes very badly — capped by a car crash and a murder. But Shane has decided he wants to use the cash he earns to follow Vincent’s example and apply to art school. However, helmer/scripter Gleeson appears to have become consumed with throwing obstacles in Shane’s path — faux thriller impediments that never fully convince.
It’s a long, downhill slide for Shane, but pic’s underlying good feeling for its characters won’t let the poor lad down in the final stretches. The best measure of Legge’s wonderful performance is that he’s able to pull auds through the plot’s many predictable stretches and still make Shane an engaging guy with many layers.
Leech may play second fiddle here, but his dashing good looks and charms indicate lead roles to come. He and Legge establish an interesting gay-straight chemistry that is pic’s most refreshing asset, and keeps it from drifting off into formula doldrums. Shiels is able to fill in the blanks in her deliberately underwritten role, while Murray’s perf keeps everyone guessing.
As helmer, Gleeson doesn’t yet have a full grasp of atmospherics, but he and editor Andrew Bird exert terrific control, economically packing in a lot of story in less than 90 minutes. Production package is aces above and below the line. Screened print’s burned title is “Cowboys and Angels,” but pic is going out to all territories with an ampersand.