Fox // 1999 // 108 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // June 19th, 2006
"But there is another kind of evil which we must fear most, and that is the indifference of good men." -- Monsignor
Most people were probably introduced to The Boondock Saints the same way I was: through someone else who saw it, and liked it enough to pass it on. The Boondock Saints is truly a word-of-mouth success. In theaters for the blink of an eye, with a meager gross and widely maligned by critics, the film is a failure by most Hollywood standards. Yet its fan base is large and vocal.
This phenomenon helps explain the fundamental disconnect between The Boondock Saints's poor critical and box office performance and its passionate support afterward (as evidenced by a startling success in DVD sales). The previous lackluster release with a non-anamorphic transfer and tepid slate of extras was snapped up like hotcakes and has maintained steady sales since. The Boondock Saints is ripe for a double-dip. So does this new release do justice to the fans who brought this movie back from the dead, or do we need to send in Il Duce to spray some hot lead around?
Connor MacManus (Sean Patrick Flanery, Kiss the Bride) and Murphy MacManus (Norman Reedus, Blade II, The Notorious Bettie Page) are unorthodox, but beloved, blue collar heroes in Boston. While drinking in their local bar on St. Paddy's Day, they run afoul of some nasty Russian gangsters. The brothers take the big guys down in a bar fight, but let them go with singed bottoms and a beer on the house.
This brawl sets off an unparalleled spree of vigilante killings. Armed with information provided by their mobster lackey friend Roc (David Della Rocco), the brothers MacManus take on a slew of notable mobsters and sleazeballs, including Roc's bosses Yakavetta (Carlo Rota, Nero Wolfe: The Complete First Season) and Vincenzo (Ron Jeremy, Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy). Their actions draw the attention of FBI superagent Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Spider-man). Their amateurish, but exceptional, abilities as hitmen confound Agent Smecker to no end. He eventually comes to identify with the brothers. But is it too late to save them from master hitman Il Duce (Billy Connolly, The Last Samurai)?
Action directors love to use the interrupted religious ceremony as character establishment. When Yasuharu Hasebe sent a gang of cops striding through the middle of a wedding in Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion: Grudge Song (an image that Tarantino later appropriated), it showed us that these cops held nothing dear or sacred. When John Woo did that one shootout in the church with a bunch of doves flying around (you remember that one, don't you?) it shocked us through the juxtaposition of flying lead with flying symbols of peace. And now, first-time writer/director Troy Duffy has his heroic brothers stride down the isle during mass, walk right past the priests, and kiss the feet of Jesus. The stunning twist here is that Duffy is showing us the unorthodox -- but deeply spiritual -- code of honor that drives the MacManus Brothers. They don't care about niceties like the Sacrament of Communion, but they are more spiritual than you.
Get used to this theme, because most of The Boondock Saints consists of Duffy crudely (yet flamboyantly) appropriating cool stuff from other action flicks. Sometimes The Boondock Saints feels like an abridged action movie field guide, with references to everything from The Godfather to The Professional. There is no cliché too worn, no symbol too outrageous for Duffy.
Yet this also leads to the unique energy in the film. Duffy gleefully punctuates his film with saturated violence and unabashed mayhem. Cats disintegrate in clouds of red. Fingers get shot off and land amid shrubberies. Roc fondles the breast of a dancer who has passed out from shock. Agent Smecker dresses in drag and kicks a mobster in the nads. No stone is left unturned. As each atrocity mounts, you will either turn away in disgust or find yourself perversely enthralled. It is unabashed, puerile wish fulfillment.
Somehow, The Boondock Saints manages to feel like it is having fun and saying something meaningful despite the parade of overzealous imitation. There is no denying this: The Boondock Saints has touched a nerve. Its premise is extreme: what if we simply killed all the bad guys? No trial, no lawyers, no midnight vigils by protesting activist groups...just a few hitmen and a vat of hydrochloric acid.
Okay, maybe "fun" wasn't the right word, but The Boondock Saints has a sense of humor. Sometimes the humor is forced. For example, I cringe at the artless barrage of F-bombs Roc spews out upon learning the brothers' secret. The scene tries too hard. The actor tries too hard to sell it. The writer tries too hard to make it outrageous. It isn't very hard to say "fuck" a bunch of times. But to make it daring, funny, and fitting? That takes talent. On the other hand, The Boondock Saints is full of bona fide humor, most of it surrounding the aforementioned amateurish hitman routine. Most of the charm comes from actors who far outpace the material: The brothers have a bond, and we dig that. Smecker is wry and amusing, smacking his gay lover in the face because he wants to cuddle. Roc is an unlikable, but somehow moving, buffoon.
I'm not going to be the deciding factor in your enjoyment of this film, but I can help you with the "should I upgrade to the Unrated Special Edition?" question. There are a few concrete reasons why you should upgrade. The transfer is anamorphic, and has less edge enhancement than the previous transfer. The color stability, contrast, and detail are about the same, with better black levels. This is not a big budget film, and you can tell, but it takes some care with composition and color. This transfer is a technical improvement even if the fundamental character of the print hasn't changed.
Unrated Special Edition also introduces surround sound in EX. The track is not a superior effort, but the additional channel opens the soundstage. The subwoofer provides some much-needed oomph in the action scenes. Overall, the aural experience is more satisfying this time around, while retaining the aural annoyances that are inherent in the track (such as poorly mixed music). There's also a handsome metal tin to hold the two discs.
Let's talk about what the Unrated Special Edition fails to deliver. Most notably, it isn't appreciably "unrated." There's supposedly more blood and some additional dialogue thrown in. This casual viewer can't put his finger on any substantive changes. They may be there, but I can't figure them out. For some reason, I recall a scene where Il Duce passed by Smecker in drag on the stairs, but it wasn't in this version. There may be no such scene, so that should give you a frame of reference for how intimate I am with the details. That's all I've got, without the previous version nearby to compare with.
This version also fails to deliver must-have bonus features. First-time writer/director Troy Duffy seems like a first-time commentator. To get to the point, his commentary is uninteresting. It is bitter at the wrong times, obvious at others, and generally misses the mark of what we'll find engaging by a wide margin. This version contains a track by Billy Connolly, who comes across as a more seasoned, lucid, and interesting advocate for the film. Unfortunately, Connolly was a bit player in the film and is therefore forced to repeat the same basic observations over and over. The deleted scenes are the star of the extras, with a handful of entertaining moments that "flesh out" our understanding of the brothers. (Most of these were on the previous release.) The outtakes are much less interesting, as are the filmographies. It is a full extras package, it simply isn't as satisfying as it could be.
If you love the film but don't have it on DVD, the improved picture quality is reason enough to get this release. The tin is handsome, and you might pick up more in the unrated version than I did. If you aren't a fan, this set isn't going to change your mind.
Thy Kingdom Come. Thy Will Be Done.
Review content copyright © 2006 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (English)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Commentary by writer/director Troy Duffy
* Commentary by actor Billy Connolly
* Deleted scenes
* Cast and crew filmographies
* Official Site