“The Devil’s Own” is neither the best nor the worst $90 million-$100 million-area budgeted picture ever made, but it must be the one in which the cost is least evident on the screen. A reasonably engrossing, well-crafted suspenser that bears no signs of the much-reported on-set difficulties, Alan J. Pakula’s latest is much more interested in the moral stature and culpability of the main characters than in heavy action and thrills. Presence of two of the biggest names on the screen today will ensure muscular initial biz domestically and perhaps even more overseas, but grim nature of the yarn and lack of visual fireworks will likely hold this back from the blockbuster status that was certainly hoped for from this combo of stars, making financial breakeven a real longshot.
“Don’t look for a happy ending,” Brad Pitt’s Irish Republican Army hotshot warns Harrison Ford’s standup New York cop more than once. “It’s not an American story, it’s an Irish one,” he says, implying that any conventional notions about good guys and bad guys cannot be applied to thinking about Northern Ireland.
By the climax, with its “Key Largo”-esque shootout on board a small boat, the film draws perilously close to conventional American movie melodrama, but for the most part it concentrates on the personalities of the two men who initially bond but must ultimately face each other down in a life-and-death duel.
That life in Ulster can be defined by violence is brutally established in a prologue, which shows a Catholic father being gunned down at the dinner table in front of his family. Twenty years on, the man’s son, Frankie McGuire (Pitt), has become the Brits’ Public Enemy No. 1, having taken out 13 soldiers and 11 cops.
After a fierce battle on the streets of Belfast, in which several of his comrades are killed, Frankie escapes to New York, where he is welcomed by IRA-friendly judge Peter Fitzsimmons (George Hearn) and discreetly placed in the home of a veteran Irish cop, Tom O’Meara (Ford), his wife, Sheila (Margaret Colin), and three daughters, who know nothing of their guest’s true identity.
Financed by the judge, Frankie, under the alias of Rory Devaney, is in the U.S. to acquire a stock of Stinger missiles from saloon entrepreneur and arms merchant Billy Burke (Treat Williams) with the intention of transporting them across the Atlantic in a small boat and delivering a potential knockout blow to the Limeys.
While the picture, and Rory, wait out a hitch in the deal, attention turns to O’Meara, who is suddenly faced with the greatest moral crisis of his career when his partner, Edwin Diaz (Ruben Blades), shoots an unarmed criminal in the back and needs Tom to cover for him. The veteran becomes so unglued over this incident that he decides to quit the force, but this is forestalled by a violent break-in and struggle at his home with three of Burke’s goons.
While Rory goes to confront Burke alone, the now highly suspicious Tom discovers his house-guest’s large stash of cash, leading to a confrontation between the two men that unfolds through an extended cat-and-mouse chase in Manhattan and, finally, on board Rory’s boat.
Whatever contortions the script went through on its way to the result, Pakula has managed to maintain an admirable concentration on the central moral equation, which posits the Irish terrorist’s understandable political and emotional motivations for revenge versus the decent cop’s sense of justice and the greater human good.
While the film decidedly comes down in favor of Tom’s religiously reinforced position and against the perpetuation of the cycle of violence, it does not slight the reasons for Rory’sactions, lending him enough credence to make him a character a nonpartisan audience can go along with.
Action is punctuated by numerous standoffs, fights and exchanges of gunfire, but nothing, after the initial IRA-Brit battle, of an elaborate nature. This will vaguely disappoint mainstream fans expecting more large-scale action, but the film is clearly more interested in exploring character give-and-take between these surrogate father-and-son figures than in adding yet more car crashes and body count statistics to Hollywood’s dizzying total.
The film actually strikes a decent balance of elements, but while Rory retains a solid measure of intrigue throughout, helped by a fine and charismatic performance by Pitt, Ford’s character, while sympathetic, is much more conventionally conceived, with little to be revealed about him that is not quickly apparent.
Tom is a regular guy with regular feelings, and although what happens to him fits the Hitchcockian prescription of an ordinary man being placed in extraordinary circumstances, Tom still remains bland compared to the daring, deeply driven Rory.
This is, in fact, very close to Pitt’s best work to date. Convincing dramatically and delivering a serviceable Belfast accent, the young star gives every appearance of having gotten deeply into his role. While never losing sight of Rory’s deadly seriousness, he resists wallowing in dourness or self-importance, and allows his charm and humor to come through at a few key moments.
Ford works well enough in his scenes opposite Pitt, but exhibits slight signs of strain in the most emotionally taxing scenes. Both actors get to cry and shoot off a few rounds, which these days is running the gamut.
Supporting cast is solid, with Hearn as the covert IRA financier, Williams as the thuggish arms dealer and Natascha McElhone as the Irish contact Rory can most trust making the most of their limited screen time.
Physically, pic is impeccable, with Jane Musky’s detailed production design, Gordon Willis’ astutely graded widescreen lensing and fine Gotham-area locations combining for an exceedingly handsome look whose emphasis on muted midrange colors complements the moral and political gray areas the film explores. The low-key approach of James Horner’s score also is very welcome.