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The Devil's Own Review

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by Chris McEneany May 14, 2008

    The Devil's Own Review
    “What's the money for? I was thinking guns? I was thinking IRA?”

    Based on Kevin Jarre's story and written by David Aaron Cohen, The Devil's Own came out at a point when it appeared Brad Pitt could do no wrong. He'd already proved his versatility and eagerness to embrace diverse and difficult roles - a lethargic and miserable gothic bloodsucker in Interview With The Vampire, a jibber-jabbering psycho in Twelve Monkeys, Se7en's gung-ho copper and, of course, the wild and unpredictable Tristan in Legends Of The Fall - so for the golden boy to suddenly adopt an “Oirish” accent and portray hardened IRA killer, Frankie McGuire, fleeing from Belfast and hoping to cement a munitions deal on the other side of the Pond to further stake his name and reputation in the annals of Northern Ireland's Troubles, was hardly a shocker. Whereas such a role would have spelled troubles of their own for most other young Turks on the scene, Pitt was geared-up to do the unthinkable and, in many ways, unpalatable - and make us sympathise with a terrorist. Or, at least, that is what he and once-great director Alan J. Pakula intended to happen.

    And, had the film actually possessed the strength of realising this premise, it would have been a powerful and unorthodox standard-bearer, indeed. Instead, The Devil's Own contentedly drifts down the middle of road, happy to wave fleetingly at taboos like the murder of British soldiers in the tenements of Belfast or the dark heart of policing the Big Apple from a distance as opposed to properly addressing any of the issues it sets up.

    Through his nefarious underground connections, Frankie is allowed into the humble Manhattan home of honoury Irish copper Tom O'Meara (Harrison Ford), with a fake name, fake agenda and a murderous mood for revenge after the bloodbath back in Belfast. Devoted family-man and warm-hearted beneficiary, Tom obviously has no idea of his guest's real identity and happily takes the floppy-haired stranger under his wing. With two teenage daughters who naturally idolise the newcomer and a somewhat overly “settled” attitude to the world around him, Tom seems to walk an oblivious line parallel to the dangers that Frankie takes for granted, which only makes the ensuing drama of terrorism and organised crime that comes to threaten his kith and kin all the more sudden and frightening. As the bond between Tom and his roguish guest grows, it becomes clear that each one is having an influence on the attitudes of the other and it should come as no surprise that their two wildly conflicting beliefs will ultimately go head to head when Frankie's violent past catches up with him.

    In a nutshell, The Devil's Own is simply an excuse to pitch in two superstars from different generations and let them run the gauntlet of emotion and empathy in what is, on paper at least, a controversial story of good and evil and the intense grey area that exists between those two extremes. But the film never raises its own game and embraces any of the issues that would make a chronicle of what makes an IRA terrorist tick with anything more than only superficial set dressing. Pitt may be emoting in a seriously pre-Mickey (from Snatch) Irish lilt that is anything but convincing, but his character is sadly shallow and sanitised to boot. We are never once under the illusion that this dangerous extremist won't fall for the simple family ethics of Tom's upstanding lawman and learn respect and humility from him. Likewise, we know implicitly that Tom will fall for the sweet naiveté that his guest tries to exude before the ruse is finally blown, with only a couple of pints of Guinness down at his local and a cheerfully fought game of pool with a mickey-taking halfwit to draw the two together. Everything about the script feels too convenient and if the leading men fail to convince us that they are anything other than big name actors playing the parts because they feel they are somehow worthy, then what chance does the plot stand of holding up to scrutiny?

    This isn't to say that The Devil's Own is a lousy film. It isn't. But it smacks of Hollywood over-simplification, the makers merely hitching a lift on strong subject matter and using this as an all-too convenient springboard to fashion what becomes a rather dull and tepid thriller. Barring an initial execution and some tough talk, there is precious little weight to the tale. The inclusion of the weapons-deal story-arc is altogether too run-of-the-mill for us to really care why Frankie is in New York and the issue of Irish identity versus a sadistic British military is irritatingly corny and ill thought-out. If the writers want to make a statement then they could have done so with more conviction than is exhibited here, rendering much of the terrorism angle strangely devoid of interest. The more you see Brad Pitt being a terrorist, or hear about his previous kills and infamy, the less you view him as one. If this is the point that the film is trying to make, they succeed more by fluke than by design. Pitt, as watchable as ever, just doesn't exude any of the inner-conflict, desperate anger or moral dilemmas that a real Provo would be subject to - which is where the film drops the ball. Just dressing someone up and putting a metaphorical badge on them to claim they are “this” or “that” is purely cardboard characterisation. I can't quite decide if the fault here lies entirely with the script or with Pakula's decision to go with big name stars in such roles. Certainly Pitt is more than capable of finding the guts of a character, but his portrayal here is banal and airbrushed. Even Ford loses the battle by simply sleepwalking through Tom's plight. The happy-then-beleaguered copper shtick soon runs out of steam, leaving Ford with nothing left to do other than to pull some more of those silly faces as he runs across the screen.

    Thus the film lightly taps when it should have punched, skips merrily and abstractedly when it should have lunged.

    Treat Williams is a very familiar face on the streets of New York, what with the classic Prince Of The City, the enjoyable Hand Gun and, of course, Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In America under his belt. Here essaying arms-dealing ne'er-do-well Billy Burke, he gets by on doing very little, his own likeably untrustworthiness shining out of his eyes even during the simplest of scenes. Yet there is much more charisma exuding from his bit-parting villain than there is from the two leads put together. Then there is Natascha McElhone's lilting blast-from-the-past, Megan, who appears to stir up whimsical memories for Pitt's hard man, though this contrivance is left to dangle in the air. Elsewhere, it is interesting to see Lethal Weapon's scumbag mercenary General McAllister, Mitchell Ryan, as Tom's police chief, but, really speaking, The Devil's Own doesn't offer a performance that stands out which is a shame considering the talent and the concepts involved.

    A brutal gun-battle off the Falls Road between Frankie's mob and the SAS is spectacular but wholly implausible, and attempts to humanise the villains at the expense of the Security Forces - which may have gone down well in some quarters of the USA, but leaves a nasty taste in the mouth for most people. With a central device that seeks to subvert our own ideas and emotions - much like the other IRA thriller A Prayer For The Dying, starring known sympathiser Mickey Rourke - Pakula lacks the courage of his convictions and paints Frankie as all-too angelic and aggrieved. His later bouts of violence are, naturally, deemed almost as heroic, especially when he comes to aid of a serious home invasion at Tom's place or takes the fight to Burke's boys. But this also comes across as a highly unlikely development for a man on the run. And the arrival of the British Security officials who are tracking down the splintered IRA team only makes the scenario more cluttered than is necessary and equally feels like another piece of the same old jigsaw being slotted into place.

    “They're not gonna bring him in ... they're gonna kill him!”

    By far the most detrimental aspect of the film is the relationship between Tom and Frankie. Handled by such pros as Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt, you would expect a level of chemistry and soul-searching to take place, but the pairing of these stalwart personalities fails to spark in any way, shape or form. There's a token gesture to the differing circumstances of the two men's backgrounds. Tom, the happy family man whose dedication to the job and his own code of morality plays against the bitterness and rage of the younger Frankie, who saw his own father murdered before him and has learned to survive by guile, fortitude and a hatred honed by years of spiteful segregation. The bond that evolves between them does not move us because it is so clichéd, and the inevitable battle of wills just seems too damn gentle. Even when Frankie rams Tom's head into the window of his own police car, you can detect a tired, “I didn't hurt you there, did I, mate,?” approach to the scenario that sinks any tension there should have been. This dichotomy of personality is only paid lip service by a screenplay that waters down the issues as if afraid its audience might learn something about the nature of the beast and how seductive it can be when forced to use subterfuge rather than overt prejudice. A struggle as fierce as this - be it the strife in Northern Ireland or the metaphorical anger, scheming and vulnerability of Frankie's disenfranchised warrior - is something that this story should have thrived upon. Instead, we get a messy subplot involving Tom's partner on the Force, played by Ruben Blades, who provides some petty angst that Ford tries valiantly to have us care about but, ultimately, matters squat when you just know that cop-buddies in this particular genre don't have much of a lifespan. Tom is simply a foil. Saddled with simplistic good-guy dynamics and an unforgivable lack of depth, Harrison Ford can't salvage much of worth and, thus, it is left to Pitt to carry the baggage in a role that surely didn't call for such pretty-boy, hair-tossing pout 'n' preen excess. Yet, coming away from The Devil's Own, he is still about the only thing that you will recall.

    Ford would tackle the IRA with much more verve and commitment and garner far more accomplished results when he grappled with Sean Bean in Patriot Games.

    Even the score from James Horner - who, ironically enough, would also score Patriot Games, only with much more originality - lapses into one of the composer's many lazy periods and singularly fails to ignite any passion from within the movie. Utilising lots of typical Celtic melodies and instruments a la his common-themed work for Titanic, Braveheart and Legends Of The Fall, his score is badly formulaic and corny. Now I like Horner's work as a rule - as reviews have, and will continue to show - but I am also the first to admit that he succumbs to the easiest template of thematic scoring all too readily. His music here is woefully un-dramatic and hardly even attempts to raise the pulse, with his pleasantly twiddle-happy compositions more befitting an Visit Ireland tourism commercial. On a much more pleasing note, the inclusion of The Cranberries' diminutive-yet-adorable pixie songstress Dolores O' Riordan - with a voice that either grates or turns on (and I'm forever in the latter category) - on the opening track, God Be With You, is a proper scene-setting tonic.

    Overall, The Devil's Own is a reasonable enough pot-boiler. It doesn't make any grand statements, despite some rather clumsy motivational spiel from a cornered Frankie, and the nature of terrorism, and its bizarre code of ethics, honour and betrayal is only explored in purely dot-linking fashion. Pakula just seems to be treading water for much of the time, a far cry from his earlier explorations into the seedier side of humanity - both moral and political - in the acclaimed trio of Klute, The Parallax View and, especially, All The President's Men which were all serious and intelligently made films. Then again, the filmmaker's output was considerably less personalised and driven even before this - which ended up being his final production - with the likes of the risible The Pelican Brief, the boring Consenting Adults and his previous Harrison Ford collaboration, the lacklustre Presumed Innocent. Somewhere in here lies a good story about trust and betrayal, anger and redemption, but with Pakula's less than inspired direction these components become merely interchangeable labels with which to signpost an actually quite hollow and slow-moving plot.