Billy Connolly may be the greatest comedian of all-time, but in the movie stakes, he is second only to Sean Bean in terms of on-screen deaths. This is the man who claims to be ‘the only person to die in a Muppet movie’ so I was hoping the Big Yin could make it at least one film without being knocked-off again.
While I won’t spoil this directly (although it’s pretty easy to figure out whether he does survive by just looking at his filmography) it is nice to see him step out of his comfort zone.
I first found out about this film from one of Connolly’s stand-up shows, where he describes one of the most famous scenes, and just from that it caught my interest (the routine in question is on his ‘High Horse’ DVD/Blu-Ray, I recommend digging it out) by his description, I knew his character wouldn’t be his typical fare, he wouldn’t be a barrel of laughs.
For those who aren’t aware of this film, it’s probably because it suffered from some truly awful timing. The film was shot in 1999, and due to be released the following year, and in the interim between the shoot wrapping and the film’s release, the Columbine High School massacre occurred, in which two teenagers, dressed in leather trench coats, opened fire at their high school, killing 15 people and injuring many more. Naturally, the films distributors didn’t think an ultra-violent film, whose lead characters both wear leather trench coats and shoot a lot of people was particularly appropriate, and the film was buried upon release.
Now, of course, the film was in no way responsible for either the acts themselves, or its unfortunate lack of fanfare upon release, however, it did make wave in the home video market, becoming a modest cult hit, and making back enough money for a sequel (released 10 years later, in 2009) to be greenlit.
So, was the film worthy of its cult status, and did it make enough of an impression to break away from the comparisons to real-life events? Well, not quite.
I’ll just state for the record so we can move on and stop the comparisons: no, I do not think any of the on-screen violence depicted in this film (or any film) is to blame for real-life events, I also don’t think it’s celebrating violent acts, it does however, take an extremely juvenile, almost fetishistic approach to on-screen violence, even if none of that violence is reflective of the real-world.
The way it revels in its depiction of violence puts me in mind of a director, having just seen a Tarantino film, wanting to replicate the violence in his films, without realising the subtlety or context behind the characters actions, and the result is this insane miasma of violence that’s both incoherent, and ridiculously unbelievable.
Take one scene and compare it to another for example; early in the film, the two protagonists (both of whom have no prior experience as hitmen, and have just accidentally stumbled into this life) perfectly shoot and kill nine mobsters while they hang from the ceiling rotating like a kebab, all the while these ruthless and experienced mobsters fumble and flail for their guns.
Then compare that with a later scene, in which the same duo (plus an additional berk they found) are faced with a highly skilled and lauded assassin with a reputation for his efficiency. This assassin fires SIX guns worth of ammunition at three people, while they shoot back, and all he manages to do is shoot one in the hand and another in the leg, suggesting that this master assassin can’t hit three stationary targets with six guns.
It’s not just the violence that’s juvenile, the story as a whole feels like it’s been told to me by a child who’s had too many sugary sweets. They flit from target to target, effortlessly gunning them down with next to no resistance, all the while Willem Dafoe (did I mention he’s in this film) is tracking them down, chewing scenery like a cow chews grass.
Which brings me onto another thing about the film, the characters are so overstated and cartoony, it really undermines the gritty, organised crime-based storyline going on. You can tell when a character is angry because they’ll start shouting and flailing around, maybe even jump up-and-down like a tantruming toddler. There’s no character development at all, the characters all fall neatly into categories and never budge an inch.
Firstly there’s the ‘crazy’ characters, represented here by both the FBI Agent Smecker, shown as being highly intelligent and deductive, but prone to bouts of lunacy, such as dancing inexplicably around a crime scene, or shouting at people about things they have no control over, and Rocco (David Della Rocco) who’s also prone to sudden outbursts of shouting anger, and incoherent gibbering, not to mention incompetence.
Then there’s the ‘stoic’ characters; namely the two brothers at the heart of the story who are unflappable and capable of great bouts of violence despite the fact they’re merely a pair of drunken Irishmen who work at a meat-packing plant, and ‘The Duke’ (Connolly) a career assassin who is talked up to be a killing machine, but fails to kill the aforementioned drunken louts even when they were stood in front of them.
Together they all produce as much of a spark as a damp match, no character development is seen in 109 minutes of run-time, just shouting, shooting and a writer who wants to be Tarantino so much you can hear his straining.
Still, it’s not all bad. There are a few funny lines here and there, and Dafoe is very at home playing a crazy character, if there was an Olympic event in acting crazy, he’d take gold. Connolly makes the most out of his brief screen time too.
The biggest let-down on the acting side of things is the two lead actors, Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus, both of whom would carve out respectable careers for themselves, but here them just seem lost; wanting to exude a charisma and machismo that they simply don’t possess. They also can’t decide if they want to do an Irish accent or a Boston one, and as a result end up with the worst of both worlds, flickering between the two, and just generally doing an unconvincing job of playing two unstoppable vigilantes.
In conclusion, I’m not sure why this film has achieved cult status; maybe there was a furore about its doomed release that I don’t know about, and as we all know, nothing makes people want something more than being told they can’t have it. But, for what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s ultimately worth the hassle. It’s funny in places, and the action is well-choreographed and directed, but that doesn’t help when your plot is juvenile nonsense, and none of your characters are likable. It’s a display of what would happen if someone were to make, for instance, Pulp Fiction, and completely miss all the nuance and style, and decide that the violence is what it’s all about, rather than the interesting characters and plot.
Sometimes it’s best to leave the violence to QT.