Bitter Rivalries

The Devil's Own

area theaters

Thunder Cop

Riverview Theater

Friday at midnight, Saturday at 11 a.m.

IF BRAD PITT weren't "The Sexiest Man Alive" (per People), maybe The Devil's Own wouldn't play like a recruitment ad for the IRA. Then again, without Pitt's ripe sex appeal, would this $90-million "topical" thriller even exist? Such is the paradox of big-screen hunkdom: The hunk pays for his power to green-light expensive and important movies by agreeing to be packaged as a hunk and nothing but a hunk. Indeed, Pitt found out how it feels to be a commodity during the PR transaction that now gives The Devil's Own its bad buzz and sole drama. Competitively paired with older hunk Harrison Ford, he threatened to quit after three screenwriters failed to resolve the issue of top billing. In turn threatened with a studio lawsuit, Pitt told Newsweek that the film was "irresponsible"--a statement he was obliged to rescind in promoting the movie, and his role in it as the Sexiest IRA Man Alive.

At least until now, you had to credit Pitt with a certain brilliance in shaping his own "star text"--that is, the actor's equivalent of an auteur's oeuvre. After playing the part of Geena Davis's orgasm in Thelma & Louise, he multiplied that sensation in the ludicrously virile Legends of the Fall, added a mythopoetic dimension to it in Seven, and then devolved it in 12 Monkeys--therefore completing an iconic trilogy that would seem impossible to extend. Sure enough, The Devil's Own consigns Pitt to reprising his Vengeful Inner Child from Sleepers; his boyhood trauma in this case is having witnessed his dad's execution in Northern Ireland for being a Republican sympathizer. Thus "raised on the bitter realities of death and anger" (according to the press kit), Pitt's thickly accented Frankie McGuire becomes an IRA gunrunner whose desperate living conditions in Belfast give him a striking resemblance to the young Grizzly Adams.

Frankie cleans up his appearance when he flees to New York to stay with Irish-American cop and devoted family man Tom O'Meara (Ford). Ostensibly, the tension involves whether Frankie, posing as an innocent refugee, can pull off a purchase of stinger missles right under Tom's ol' bloodhound nose. But as the film forgoes political intrigue in favor of selling its stars in various male-bonding situations (such as sharing the floor in a Celtic dance!), the real suspense has to do with which of these guys will be the last action stud standing in the (reportedly re-shot) final scene. Ford is at a disadvantage since his pension-bound cop character has shot a gun only four times in the last 23 years, and shares a bathroom with his wife (Margaret Colin) and three daughters. ("It's good to have someone around here who pees standing up," he says upon greeting Frankie.) Meanwhile, Pitt looks positively dreamy whether recollecting his homeland or shooting people in self-defense, both of which trigger traditional Irish music that seems to equate the IRA with the Emerald Isle in general.

Adding a Guinness product placement and a Cranberries tune to its fashionable compendium of Ireland-isms, The Devil's Own is hardly a film about "the troubles." Still, it pretends to pit Pitt's character against Ford's so as to suggest the war between Hollywood and the "bitter realities" of, say, In the Name of the Father. "Don't look for happy endings," Frankie tells Tom, cueing us to expect that the cop, like the terrorist, will resolve to kill in an effort to stop the killing. "It's not an American story," Frankie says later. "It's an Irish one." The re-tooled ending begs to differ, whitewashing the conflict onscreen and off in a way that leaves both actors primed for their next blockbusters.

As usual, a lively alternative to U.S. action dreck can be found in this weekend's installment of "Cinema With Passion," Asian Media Access's unstoppable series of Hong Kong genre-benders at the Riverview Theater. Coincidentally, Clarence Ford's Thunder Cop (1996) also sports a friendship-turned-face-off between a cop and a crook--but, partly because stars Nicky Wu and Rene Lau don't command $20-million salaries, the relationship remains unpredictable and playfully suggestive. During a torrential rain of bullets, cop Lone (Wu) takes a liking to gangster Ho (Lau) and saves his life. Eternally grateful, Ho proposes to his new friend that they should give up their occupations for the straight life (so to speak). But when Lone rescues Ho's girlfriend Ying (Carrie Ng) from a similar downpour, he falls for her too. AMA's program notes refer to Thunder Cop as "a copycat of The Killer"--which it may well be, although Ford's stretch to include some gut-wrenching melodrama proves that this genre is still plenty elastic.

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