1998, R, 124 min. Directed by John Boorman. Starring Jon Voight, Angeline Ball, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Brendan Gleeson.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., March 5, 1999
I'm no expert on Irish history, but I can only assume that when one of their criminals is singled out as unusually flamboyant, this should be viewed as a pretty heavy-duty superlative. Martin Cahill, the hood in question, was definitely a rare bird in the annals of modern crime: a ruthless armed robber, racketeer, and extortionist who somehow managed to attract all the public adulation we associate with Robin Hood-type crooks without actually sharing much of his ill-gotten swag with his fellow working-class Irishmen. John Boorman's fascinating biopic seeks, with a large measure of success, to explain this peculiar cult of personality. In the process, it also gives us one of the few truly original gangster movies made in recent years by a non-Asian director. From its striking look -- the film is shot entirely in widescreen black-and-white -- to the rich, unfailingly authentic performances by Gleeson (as Cahill) and Voight (as the decent-hearted detective who pursues him), everything here conveys a refreshing sense that the genre rulebook has been thrown completely out the window. Which makes sense, given the one-of-a-kind nature of Martin Cahill himself. As Boorman makes clear, it wasn't just Cahill's flair for extravagant tour de force heists that endeared him to the hoi polloi. It was also his knack for twisting the knife afterward by beating the rap in ways that emphasized the cops' ineffectuality. For example, he once used $80,000 in stolen cash to obtain a cashier's check. He then crossed the street to the police station and chatted with puzzled flatfeet as his men slipped into the bank and stole back the original cash. Cahill thereby doubled his money while setting up the station cops as his alibi! Predictably, these antics had the effect of taunting a rabid pit bull by bashing a stick against its chain link pen. The screws tightened on Cahill, pushing him toward disastrous decisions (chiefly involving run-ins with the IRA) and paranoia-driven abuse of his own loyal gang members. Cahill was a vexingly complex man who didn't neatly conform to any of our pat understandings of either real or movie crooks. A sentimental, teetotaling family guy with a fondness for T-shirts emblazoned with cartoon pigs, he also threatened jurors, openly fathered children by his sister-in-law, and once disciplined one of his men by nailing his hands to a pool table. Gleeson, a remarkable actor known for both the quantity and quality of his work (Braveheart, I Went Down, and The Butcher Boy among others) never cheats for a millisecond in his balanced portrayal of the dark and light elements in Cahill's nature. The resulting picture is as muddled and murky as life itself, “unmovielike” to an often disturbing extent. But Cahill's story -- outlandish and contradictory as it is in Boorman's retelling -- made me think, feel, and reflect more than any crime-themed movie I've seen since Takeshi Kitano's Fireworks. Funny, scabrous, disturbing, tragic, and improbably life-affirming, The General travels its own idiosyncratic path with more real style and substance than the past half-decade of Hollywood gangster movies combined.