Sony // 1997 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // April 18th, 2008
One man trapped by destiny, and another bound by duty. They're about to discover what they're willing to fight, and to die for.
I saw The Devil's Own sometime in the late-90s. I recall being bored, though I admired both the leads. Part of the problem was the story; it seemed to assume more knowledge of the conflict between the Irish and the British than I possessed at the time. Now that I've got a (slightly) better grip on the whole affair, I was anticipating a more pleasurable viewing experience. Although I still think there are some problems with the film, it's worth a viewing, as both an interesting take on the current difficulties in Ireland and as a solid catalog release in the Blu-ray format.
Frankie "The Angel" McGuire (Brad Pitt, Fight Club) is a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA), and he hopes to drive the British from Ireland by force of arms. He's being hunted by members of British Intelligence, and many of the men from his unit are already dead. Hoping to send a message to Britain by acquiring (and using) Stinger missiles, Frankie travels to Boston to arrange for the purchase and transport of these weapons. There, he is lodged by a sympathetic judge (George Hearn, Flags of our Fathers) in the house of unsuspecting cop Tom O'Meara (Harrison Ford, The Fugitive). As complications with the sale arise, Tom becomes more suspicious of Frankie. When the violence spreads from Frankie's world to Tom's, Tom is forced to take action.
The 90s were the decade for the depiction of Irish culture (especially as it relates to the Troubles in Northern Ireland) in America. From the serious (In the Name of the Father) to the sensational (Blown Away's Tommy Lee Jones as a mad bomber), the Irish were a hot commodity. Aimed somewhere between the extremes, The Devil's Own was a big-budget, star-studded flop (at least on American shores). Brad Pitt bad-mouthed the film in the press, and it's not hard to see how the film's use of Irish struggle as a back-drop for a dramatic thriller could be objectionable. With over 10 years distance (and permanent peace in Ireland apparently much closer), it's easier to talk about the relative merits of the film as it stands. On the plus side, there are some effective performances, but these aren't enough to overcome a muddled script.
Johnny Depp gets lots of credit for his ever-changing accent, but I think Brad Pitt needs more recognition in this category. He doesn't change it up too often, but when he does (Snatch) it works more often than not. His accent will be the most obvious aspect of his performance in The Devil's Own as he attempts an Irish lilt. It's not perfect, but it's better than many of the accents that Hollywood has produced. Leaving that aside, the rest of his performance is masterful. He's mercurial: sometimes intense and brooding, others laughing and smiling. But through all his actions, he still seems to be aware that his purpose in America is to buy guns to fight the British. It's a rich performance, and makes the film worth watching despite its other difficulties.
Brad Pitt is not the film's only impressive thespian. Harrison Ford gives the best performance I can recall from him. When he finally discovers Frankie's secret, his intensity is astounding without ever seeming like he's chewing scenery. The scene where Frankie drives Tom home from the bar shows depths that I didn't think Ford could reach. His performance is also remarkable because he brings a humanity to his role as a policeman. He's not a superhero or a robot, but a regular guy trying to protect his family and do what's right. The rest of the cast supports these excellent performances. Rubén Blades, Treat Williams, Paul Ronan, and Natascha McElhone all give interesting performances in smaller roles.
But even this all-star cast can't overcome a misguided script. The film succeeds admirably in the first two acts, effectively setting up Frankie, Tom, and the situation once they meet. The arms deal is tensely handled, generating enough tension to keep the film interesting. However, once the deal goes wrong and Tom learns of Frankie's identity, the movie loses its way. The main problem is confused motivation on Tom's part. As a cop, his instinct is obviously to bring Tom to justice, but earlier we learned that he's going to give up being a cop (not to mention he has no jurisdiction). He also claims its to protect Frankie from the Brits who would kill instead of capture him. That doesn't make sense because Tom is obviously willing to use force (even lethal force) to bring him in. Finally, on a personal level Tom admits that he understands why Frankie is doing what he's doing. Despite this understanding, he's still willing to risk his life to bring Frankie in. All this adds up to a lackluster climax to an otherwise interesting thriller. Also, because it becomes about a one-on-one conflict, all the wider implications hinted at with the film's start in Ireland are lost.
On a totally different note, I have to wonder where the film's 90 million dollar budget went. I know stars like Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt don't come cheap, and neither does filming in New York City, but this really doesn't look like a 90 million dollar movie. I only mention this because there are no extras on this Blu-ray disc to give me any insight into my confusion. Instead we get a bunch of trailers for other films. However, what the film lacks in extras is made up for by a solid audiovisual presentation. The film looked great, even for a 10 year old film. It looks flat occasionally, but it seemed to be an intentional decision rather than a problem with the transfer. The audio was effective, with some excellent separation in the soundstage. I hope all catalog release get this kind of audiovisual attention in the future.
The Devil's Own stands in the shadow of the dreaded T-word: terrorism. Certainly the members of PIRA and similar groups have been labeled terrorists many times before (especially by the British government they oppose), but the issues are complicated. One of the things I admire about the film is its refusal to overly simplify by demonizing either Frankie or Tom. Instead, both sides are presented as complicated positions which deserve scrutiny (although the British get the short end this time around, with the Brit characters appearing as thugs). It's not a political treatise by any stretch, but it was more nuanced than I would have expected from Hollywood. However, I mention this in the Rebuttal section because in our current climate the film's ambiguity might be seen by some as condoning terrorism, a no-no in post-9/11 society. So, if you like your terrorists obvious and evil, then The Devil's Own is not for you.
The Devil's Own is two-thirds a solid dramatic thriller with an excellent cast. But even a lackluster ending can't overshadow the rest of the film, so I feel comfortable recommending this film to those who want to see Harrison Ford or Brad Pitt strut their stuff.
The Devil's Own is found not guilty. Sony is encouraged to add extras to their Blu-ray catalog titles in the future.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (French)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Rated R