Saturday 27 August 2011

Movie Review: The Devil's Own (1997)

A sputtering thriller that plays out in slow motion and suffers from a particularly leaden middle third, The Devil's Own has the benefit of two captivating stars in Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford, whose talents are deployed in full to help navigate the film around many rough patches.

Frankie McGuire is eight years old when he witnesses his father brutally assassinated at the dinner table, setting him on a path of unbridled commitment for the Irish Republican cause. Twenty years later, it's the early 1990s and Frankie (Brad Pitt) is the charismatic leader of a deadly cell in the Irish Republican Army (IRA), and one of the most wanted men by the British authorities in Northern Ireland. An attempt to arrest Frankie turns into a firefight and a debacle for the British agents, who suffer high casualties.

Frankie travel to the United States to finalize a deal for the IRA to purchase Stinger missiles: the ability to shoot down British helicopters would dramatically strengthen the IRA's hands. In the US, a respected judge sympathetic to the Republican cause provides Frankie with a bogus cover job at a construction site, and arranges for him to live with the New Jersey family of Tom O'Meara (Ford). Tom is a highly principled New York cop of Irish ancestry, married with three daughters. He welcomes Frankie into his family, oblivious to his terrorist activities.

Frankie connects with Billy Burke (Treat Williams), an underground arms dealer arranging the sale of the Stingers. The deal goes sour and Burke turns against Frankie; meanwhile, Tom is having troubles of his own with his cop partner Eddie (Ruben Blades), who shoots dead a fleeing but unarmed burglar.Gradually Tom clues in to the true purpose of Frankie's visit to the US, and has to intervene to try and reduce the threat of an ever increasing cycle of violence.

The Devil's Own proved to be veteran director Alan J. Pakula's final film prior to his unfortunate death in a 1998 car crash. Although far from his best work, he does provide the movie with a quality polish. Pakula has the experience to recognize the best assets at his disposal, and he keeps the focus on Pitt and Ford, trusting them with the heavy lifting.

Pitt is the more magnetic of the two stars, and conveys the charisma of a man single-mindedly dedicated to a life of struggle while fully recognizing that his death may lie around every corner. Until he meets that fate, Frankie does not hesitate to push towards his objectives. Ford plays Tom as the moral but perhaps none-too-smart cop, on the final downhill run of his career, overwhelmed by a noisy family life and just hoping to wind down his policing without having to kill anyone.

Having Treat Williams and Ruben Blades in the supporting cast helps to provide additional heft to the production. Neither is asked to stretch, but they do add strong personalities and provide some counterbalance to Pitt and Ford.

The strong cast and focus on characters are the main positives to emerge from The Devil's Own, since the credibility of the action sequences does not stand up to any kind of scrutiny, and the slowish pace throughout nourishes character development much more so than sustained thrills.

The script attempts to elicit some measure of mis-guided sympathy for the IRA's cause; this does not go very far, as the amount of killing and violence triggered by Frankie overwhelms any message about the tactics being justified.

The Devil's Own could have been both better and worse than it is. It lands as a decent vehicle for a veteran craggy actor and an emerging tousled talent, with both men proving the enduring value of star power.

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