1998 - R - 129 Mins.
|Director: John Boorman|
|Producer: John Boorman|
|Written By: John Boorman, Paul Williams|
|Starring: Brendan Gleeson,
Maria Doyle Kennedy,
|Review by: David Rolston
There are two types of daily newspapers to be found in your average metropolis. The first type is the quarter-fold papers, delivered to the doorsteps of the wealthy with important sounding names like “The Times” and “The Post”. Institutions with centuries of history behind them, they ascribe to the type of reporting tradition taught in college to budding journalists: brevity, source checking, neutrality. Then there are the news stand papers, the Daily tabloid format book folds, serving up a steady diet of salacious sports gossip, photos of scantily clad women, and the exploits of the criminal underworld to their core blue-collar readership.
Brendan Gleeson and crew plot a major heist
Where the prestige papers focus on the reporting of important news, the tabloids accentuate the stories that sell the most papers: human interest tales, small scale tragedies, and lurid tales of gang warfare and modern day desperados. In the process, the tabloids have created many folk hero bandits, but never with more success than in the case of Dublin bank robber Martin Cahill, who was dubbed by the press and became better known to the Irish public as “The General.”
John Boorman’s 1998 film based on Paul Williams' book about Cahill chronicles the career criminal's twenty year cat and mouse relationship with “the Garda” (the Irish Police). Filmed using a desaturated color process and released in black and white, it features a gigantic career making performance by Irish character actor Brendan Gleeson as Cahill.
Boorman's interest in Cahill is longstanding, having himself been victimized by the man in a burglary depicted humorously in the film: Boorman’s Gold record from the Deliverance soundtrack was stolen and subsequently broken and discarded by Cahill once he discovered it was only a gold painted piece of wood.
Although Cahill’s mean streak and proclivity to use violence when it suited him was a central theme of the Williams biography, Boorman softens the rough edges and focuses instead on the breath taking ingenuity of Cahill’s relentless and often inspired efforts. The film portrays him as a suprisingly charismatic contrarian intent on living life on his own terms, in a country infamous for the burden of its religious and socio-political institutions and messy historical entanglement with Great Britain.
Cahill rose to prominence and fame from the Dublin housing projects during a time when the country was focused on civil conflict in Northern Ireland. Boorman sketches Cahill’s childhood with economy and quickly establishes an entirely understandable predilection for self reliance and hatred of authority. Gleeson portrays the middle aged balding Cahill as a man of quick wit, and enormous intellect who plotted, organized and executed a number of carefully engineered heists which netted him and his gang millions of dollars and in the process deeply embarrassed the the Garda investigation unit set up to bring him down.
In one scene the police hoping to catch Cahill fencing valuable goods they are convinced he has stolen, tail him through the remote Irish countryside. On a narrows road, Cahill stops the car, gets out and retrieves a barrel of gasoline from the trunk which he uses to quickly refill his tank. The astonished police realize that they have been outsmarted a few moments later, as Cahill drives calmly away leaving their sputtering patrol car stranded.
The General is an intoxicating mix of true crime chronicle, invigorating caper film, and social satire. It is also frequently hilarious, in an intrinsically organic fashion, refusing to dumb down the accents, authentic Irish slang, or liberal allusions to Irish popular culture that are sprinkled throughout the dialogue and provide a remarkable feeling of place and time at the cost of leaving non British and Irish audiences somewhat in the dark. The supporting cast of Irish actors are uniformly competent veterans of Irish film and television projects. Jon Voight's participation as the lone marquee name american actor was no doubt a key ingredient that allowed Boorman to finance the picture, and while Voight is a wonderful actor and delivers a fine performance as the long suffering Investigator in charge of Cahill's case, I found his presence in the film to be the one incongrous element that distracts from rather than adding to the storytelling.
Despite the meticulous attention to period detail and distinctive Dublin locations, the film still manages to evoke empathy and admiration for its colorful enigmatic subject in terms that transcend locality and are universally human. Through Cahill’s story Boorman is able to focus on subjects that have proved elusive to film makers attempting to tackle them in a more direct manner.
The uneasy relationship of the Irish people with the Irish government and system of law is vividly illuminated in Cahill’s juggling of the various groups that threaten his enterprise, from the Garda, to the Irish Courts, to the media and eventually the IRA.
In the end Martin Cahill paid the ultimate price for his fame, and for living out the dreams of the downtrodden, dispirited, and disenfranchised. As we get to know Cahill and identify with his dillemas, the latter half of the film grows increasingly reflective, as the screws tighten and Cahill begins to crumble under the immense pressure. Boorman bestows a bittersweet melancholy tone to these scenes, which are accentuated by a sound track that includes a number of vintage Van Morrison songs which complement the story wonderfully.
The General manages to be as smart as Cahill, as entertaining as his exploits, and as thought provoking as the times and place in which he lived, while Gleeson's performance grows in stature with each passing year.