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When you cross the line there's no going back.
As far as taglines go, the one for Fifty Dead Men Walking (see "The Charge") is about as cliché as it gets. That doesn't mean the shoe doesn't fit, however, and in the case of this film, it fits quite nicely.
Inspired by a memoir by Martin McGartland and Nicholas Davies, Fifty Dead Men Walking (the title refers to the number of people who were reportedly saved due to McGartland's work) begins with a 1999 assassination attempt on McGartland (Jim Sturgess, Across the Universe), and then flashes back 11 years to Belfast. Here, McGartland is making a living as a small-time purveyor of stolen goods. Despite the brutal violence raging in his community on a daily basis, McGartland has no political convictions and focuses on looking out for number one.
McGartland's apathy is shaken, however, after witnessing a brutal punishment doled out by the IRA. Gradually, he is persuaded to become an informer (or "tout") for the Royal Ulster Constabulary's Special Branch, where he is handled by an agent who goes by the code name Fergus (Ben Kingsley, Gandhi). Sealing the deal with cash and a car, Fergus has McGartland do work for the IRA and report on their dealings to the British.
At first, McGartland enjoys his freewheeling double life, soaking up the excitement that comes with his newfound wealth and the thrills generated by maintaining his deception. But as McGartland rises within the IRA's ranks, his cover becomes increasingly fragile, and this, coupled with the demands and pressures of a growing family with girlfriend Lara (Natalie Press, Nightwatching), begins to take its toll on McGartland.
Fifty Dead Men Walking treads a lot of the same ground already covered in previous man undercover/double life stories: the love interest to provide for and protect; the best friend who must also be deceived (here played by Kevin Zegers); the older, fatherly figure (Tom Collins) who takes a shine to the informer, etc.
Although Fifty Dead Men Walking has its formulaic elements, it's still a well-done low-budget thriller. Utilizing grittily effective Belfast locations, writer-director Kari Skogland (The Stone Angel) and her crew create a damp (it's frequently wet and rainy), oppressive environment that draws the viewer into the world of the film. Although cinematographer Jonathan Freeman's shots sometimes have the overly stylized look of a CSI episode, overall, I liked the quality of the film's visuals.
Despite the afore-mentioned clichés, Skogland's screenplay has several noteworthy elements. One of them is the character of McGartland. McGartland is not presented as a patriot or Good Samaritan; instead, he's an everyday guy trying to keep his head above water in a very perilous environment. Although he's obviously affected by the IRA's viciousness, material gain also plays a role in his agreeing to become an informer.
Skogland also paints a fairly evenhanded portrait of the film's opposing forces (IRA vs. British forces). Although more narrative time is spent on the IRA and their practices, the British don't get off lightly either, and the result is a morally murky world that presents a hard dilemma to McGartland, especially when his information results in the murder of a young man by British agents. A chilling scene near the end of the film also points to collusion between the RUC and the IRA.
The acting is buoyed by strong lead performances by Sturgess and Kingsley. I had previously seen Sturgess in films like the intolerable Across the Universe and turgid 21, so it was refreshing to see the actor in a much better work. As McGartland, he projects a charismatic street-smart sensibility, as well as a sensitivity that makes him effective in his scenes with Lara and in those moments when his job makes him particularly uncomfortable, such as when he is ordered to execute an informer. (He ultimately can't go through with it.) Kingsley gives a quiet, restrained performance as Fergus. More than a driven officer of the law, Fergus genuinely cares for McGartland and his family, and Kingsley lets us see this side of Fergus gradually.
Most of the supporting cast is similarly effective. I'm no expert on accents, but Kevin Zegers sounds pretty good here, and he gives a solid performance in a thinly written role. Natalie Press is alternately fiery and vulnerable as Lara. Rose McGowan (Planet Terror) pops up in a small but distracting role as Grace Sterrin, an IRA "intelligence officer." Both the character and actor seem out of place, but Grace doesn't feature in the proceedings enough to compromise the film.
Fifty Dead Men Walking has solid image and sound quality; the film probably doesn't look and sound much different than it did when it played in theaters. The real technical deficiency with this DVD is its lack of English subtitles. I'd be willing to wager that most North American audiences will have trouble making out significant portions of the film's dialogue. The only saving grace is that Sturgess is generally easy to understand.
For extras, there is a feature commentary with Skogland. She keeps up a pretty steady discussion on the making of the film, touching on everything from working with the actors to the continuity difficulties presented by the fickle Belfast climate. All in all, it's a pretty enlightening and informative commentary. Also on the disc is a half-hour collection of behind-the-scenes footage. There's no narration included, and although it's sometimes hard to make out what people are saying, it's still worth watching to see how action sequences in the movie were staged. You also get glimpses of Skogland working with the cast. Finally, there are about 9 minutes' worth of deleted scenes and the film's trailer.
Although the film spends more time on characters than it does on politics (that's not a complaint in this case), as far as films about the Troubles go, you could do worse than Fifty Dead Men Walking. With excellent performances and a consistently grim and gritty atmosphere, this movie is well worth checking out.
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