Judge Erich Asperschlager is even better than the real thing.
"I know a lot of people who would wear that T-shirt."
It takes a special kind of failure to be famous for not making it big. Ask Pete Best, the Beatles' first drummer. Or don't. He probably doesn't want to talk about it anymore. For every band that hits it big, thousands fade into obscurity. Nick Hamm's Killing Bono—based on the memoir I Was Bono's Doppelgänger—tells the story of one such band, and the lengths some people will go stay in the spotlight.
Facts of the Case
Dublin, 1976. A group of teenagers gathers around their school bulletin board, looking at a notice posted by a drummer looking to start a band. Schoolmates Paul Hewson (Martin McCann, Clash of the Titans) and Neil McCormick (Ben Barnes, Prince Caspian) both want to be lead singer. Paul gets the gig, and along with Larry Mullen Jr. (Seán Doyle), David Evans (Mark Griffin), and Adam Clayton (David Tudor, The Space Between) they form a group called The Hype. Later, Paul and David change their names to Bono and The Edge, and they rename the band U2. Meanwhile, Neil McCormick starts his own band, with brother Ivan (Robert Sheehan, Misfits) on lead guitar. While U2's career takes off, the McCormick brothers struggle to get theirs off the ground. Neil becomes obsessed with Bono's fame, making every band decision with the goal of catching up to his famous rival. When it becomes clear it isn't going to happen, Neil considers taking care of his problem once and for all.
Killing Bono is based on the memoirs of the real Neil McCormick. Like his movie self, McCormick wanted to become a rock star, he and Bono were friends in grammar school, and he and his brother started a band. They never became famous. They never even released a record. That's where the similarities between reality and the movie end. Neil McCormick may have been frustrated, but he never wanted to kill Bono. That idea originated with the U2 frontman, with whom McCormick stayed close long after he left the stage for a career as a rock critic. Bono used to joke that all his bad luck got passed on to Neil, and that the only way to put things right was for McCormick to kill him. Of course, two friends joking about a pretend rivalry doesn't make for much of a movie.
Killing Bono name-drops one of the most famous men in music, but it's not a U2 biopic. They hardly even appear in the film. Despite what the DVD box promises, this is as much "for U2 fans" as the third Indiana Jones movie is "for Holy Grail fans." The film is about family, the ones made by blood and the ones who share a stage. In the case of the McCormick brothers, it's both. Big brother Neil cares more about being famous than about his brother. First he secretly submarines Ivan's chance to join U2. Then he makes a pact with a local gangster (also in secret) and uproots his brother's life for promises of fame in London—all the while nursing a jealous grudge against his famous schoolmate.
Neil acts badly, but it's hard to blame him for wanting to succeed on his own terms. If you strip away the petty jealousy and homicidal thoughts, his belief in himself, his brother, and their music is inspiring. I wish Hamm had made just that story. Instead, he abandons McCormick's memoir in favor of a ridiculous third act involving criminals and a failed assassination attempt.
This film is pitched as a comedy, but it's that weird brand of British humor that isn't all that funny. It exists in movie purgatory, too goofy to be a drama, and too serious to be a laugh riot. The best scenes focus on the McCormick brothers, played by Ben Barnes and Robert Sheehan. Barnes's Neil has the right mix of confidence and neurosis, even if he can't match his brother's passion. Sheehan was one of the best things about the BBC superhero comedy series Misfits. He brings that kinetic energy to his role as a struggling punk rocker. On the other side of the velvet rope, Martin McCann plays Bono. He captures the singer's mannerisms, if not his charisma. The back and forth between McCann and photos of the real Bono—which pop up surprisingly often—make it obvious how not Bono he is. Of course, depending on how you feel about the singer, that might be a plus. There are plenty of other famous faces, including Pete Postlethwaite (The Usual Suspects) as the McCormick's flamboyant landlord, and TV actress Krysten Ritter (Breaking Bad) as Neil's requisite love interest. The funniest supporting turn comes from Peter Serafinowicz (Spaced) as the coke head record exec who gives them their not-so-big break.
Killing Bono comes to DVD with a competent 2.35:1 transfer. It's a polished, bright film, with solid color and period detail, from the cold "Dublin" seaside (the film was actually shot in Northern Ireland) to the McCormick brothers' flashy '80s fashion. The 5.1 surround audio doesn't have a lot of directional effects, but the mix gives the musical sequences plenty of punch. Speaking of music, don't expect a U2-heavy soundtrack. There's only one U2 song in the film. Most of the tunes are original compositions by Ciaran Gribbin, under the name "Joe Echo," a few of which are collaborations with the real Ivan and Neil McCormick.
The DVD's lone bonus feature is a 22-minute "In-Depth Look at the Making Of Killing Bono," composed of on-set footage and interviews with the director, cast, producers, and the real McCormick brothers.
Killing Bono is a unique take on the rise-and-fall story, but it treads a well-worn path across the stage. Neil's actions are more often determined by the needs of the plot than the motivations of the character. Nick Hamm doesn't help. His slick direction and quick-cut editing style rob the film of whatever dramatic impact there should be between funny scenes that aren't that funny. If I didn't automatically assume any film with British or Irish accents was sophisticated, I'd have trouble distinguishing this from mid-level Hollywood fare.
Spoiler alert: Bono doesn't die.
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