The General

John Boorman’s 1998 docudrama about the contemporary Irish gangster Martin Cahill was critically acclaimed at Cannes as a return to form, though it flopped in London, allegedly because English teenagers couldn’t countenance a black-and-white film. It’s extremely competent, shot in ‘Scope (Boorman’s best screen format), and though it kept me absorbed it failed to win me over. I can no longer stomach the premise in so many Anglo-American crime pictures that mavericks are admirable simply because they’re mavericks. Cahill’s proud defiance of any authority, the basis of his legendary reputation, is proffered like an axiom for our uneasy awe. Boorman fills out this design with wit and polish, grandly assisted by Brendan Gleeson as Cahill, Jon Voight as his favorite adversary, and Maria Doyle Kennedy and Angeline Ball as his wife and sister-in-law (whom Cahill managed to romance simultaneously), but I still felt I was buying a very old suit of clothes. I’m told that Boorman objected to the jokey violence of GoodFellas; perhaps he undertook this project to express greater moral ambiguity about the underworld. But the same lesson is delivered far more effectively in pictures like The Public Enemy (1931) and Scarface (1932)not to mention Boorman’s own Point Blank (1967), which gives a surreal spin to the ambivalence. (JR)

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