Boorman and Bore Man

Rooting for the bad guy: Brendan Gleeson in John Boorman's The General

The General
Uptown Theatre, starts tentatively in late March

area theaters

Director John Boorman made a distinct impression at the New York Film Festival last fall, and not only because he was representing two movies made 30 years apart: his 1967 cult thriller Point Blank (which has now been reworked into the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback); and his new, somewhat similar study of another oddly charismatic bad guy, The General. After a press screening of the earlier work, Boorman himself played the Boormanesque hothead, brusquely interrupting the fest's Q&A moderator to express his dismay that "this festival doesn't show films in their proper aspect ratio." But the screen had been widened for Cinemascope, the moderator demurred. "Yes, but the sides of the frame were cut off," insisted the auteur, growing more impatient. "What was on the sides?" an audience member teasingly inquired. Thus provoked, the British, sixtysomething Boorman issued but one syllable: "More."

Two points of note in this tale: Boorman, perhaps inspired by his flamboyantly gruff Point Blank star and personal friend, the late Lee Marvin, seems to have a knack for presenting macho belligerence as droll comedy (both on-screen and off-); and, just as the man said, every square inch of his wide screen counts. Likewise shot in 'Scope (albeit in a creamy black-and-white as opposed to Blank's striking monotone color scheme), The General makes theatrical use of the full frame. In its first scene, Boorman's bio-pic of the notorious Martin Cahill follows the Irish master thief (Brendan Gleeson) out of his home in suburban Dublin, the camera marking every well-manicured shrub as he steps down a clean-cut path, past a white picket fence, and into his car. Another ordinary guy going to work, it appears, until a pistol-packing IRA hit man springs out of the woods and fires three slugs into Cahill's head. Then Boorman literally rewinds his film to reveal the bullets zipping back into the gun and the victim's face morphing into a teenager's, as Cahill the budding crook is shown running down an alley with a sack of stolen potatoes.

Like Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy, The General suggests Irish criminality as a condition instilled in childhood. The young Cahill (played by Butcher's Eamonn Owens) gleefully pilfers cream buns as if in retaliation for abuses suffered, perhaps at the hands of his butt-whipping Catholic priest. Or does the crime precede the punishment in this case? Regardless, this crafty pilferer grows up to earn fame, fortune, and the folkloric name "the General," but he remains something of a juvenile delinquent: With his oversized ears, chubby cheeks, and thin rug of a hairdo, Cahill resembles one of the cartoon troublemakers from South Park--forever the kid caught stealing. Boorman gets a kick out of juxtaposing the character's childlike demeanor with the adult business of his life as a gang-leading bandit, as when Cahill waves a stop sign like a grade-school crossing guard while his crew puts the finishing touches on an elaborate jewelry heist. Near the end of his life, with the cops and the IRA surveying his every move, the General is reduced to crawling home through a dog's swinging door, still claiming his criminal activity as a "game."

Boorman likewise plays fast and loose with Cahill's character, rarely if ever questioning the general's reputation as an anti-establishment, Robin Hood-type rebel. Even when the guy is shooting an associate in the kneecap or nailing another man's hand to a pool table, his brutality skews too close to buffoonery--and Gleeson, lacking the menace of a Lee Marvin, doesn't much complicate this view. The irony that this outlaw ends up as just another homeowner on the suburban block is barely noted, and his live-in ménage-à-trois with wife (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and sister-in-law (Angeline Ball) appears as one more of the General's boyish quirks rather than an adult dynamic worth exploring. Come to think of it, characterization and theme have always been Boorman's chief deficiencies: As with his films Beyond Rangoon and The Emerald Forest, the lush scenery here helps only so much to disguise the director's preference for style over substance.

But at least The General is a movie that has style. Payback, thoroughly abandoning the visual and temporal tricks that allowed Point Blank to transcend mere pulp, delivers its load in the form of a rote '90s noir complete with "hard-boiled" narration. (The new movie credits not Point Blank per se but the same Richard Stark novel that inspired the Boorman film--yeah, whatever, people have done hard time for lesser thefts than this.) "Old habits die hard," claims Gibson's half-dead and vengeful looter, with the actor affecting the gravelly growl of a Victor Mature. "If you don't kick 'em, they kick you." Yes indeed, and worse: As this payback-seeking anti-hero's main trip appears to be sadomasochism, he gets his with a sledgehammer to the toes in a bloody scene that marks the star's umpteenth attempt to use bodily torture as a means of making his character sympathetic (or is that sexy?).

Suffice it to say that Gibson's bold bid to complicate his virtuous screen persona finds its limits in Payback, a film whose nominal director, Brian Helgeland, was reportedly given his walking papers for failing to make the actor/producer's character sufficiently, uh, complicated. (Small wonder the print ad's would-be tough tagline--"Get ready to root for the bad guy"--sounds rather like a plea.) In Boorman's wonderful, hourlong documentary profile of Lee Marvin that aired on AMC last November, the maker of Point Blank recalls how his star volunteered to make the protagonist more remote--at one point playing a conversation scene without speaking any of the dialogue. But that was 1967. Call it a sign of the times that Boorman's new bad guy is a playful kid at heart, while Gibson's is just tender enough to be a bore.

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