The General
© 1998-2010 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.

      John Boorman has proven to be a mater filmmaker and his work continually
surprises. Rather than finding one genre and sticking with it, he constantly
experiments. While some of his early films are rather undistinguished,
Point Blank
(1967) has acquired a patina as a fine well-made, well-acted thriller. In the 70s,
Boorman gave us
Deliverance (1972), which brought his first Academy Award
nominations, and he truly flowered in the 80s, achieving his dream project of
Excalibur (1981), delving into life in the jungles of The Emerald Forest (1985),
and offering personal reminiscences of life during WWII in the Oscar-nominated
Hope and Glory (1987). While his output in the 90s has been sporadic, he was in
top form with
The General, a biographical study of notorious Irish gangster Martin
Cahill.

      The film opens with Cahill (played by Brendan Gleeson) getting in his car,
watching as an assassin approaches and being shot to death. The car skids forward
and a crowd gathers. Then, suddenly, everything reverses, the car moves back , the
bullets fly into the gun and Boorman freezes the camera on Cahill as he spots the
assassin. Dissolving into the scene is the face of a teenager (Eamonn Owens
playing the young Martin) and the story proceeds. There are telling scenes of how
this master criminal formed his belief system as a youth. Eventually, the adult
Martin takes center stage. There have been some who have voiced concerns that the
director and company have glorified thievery, but that is not the case. As writer and
director, Boorman has taken great pains to present the man, warts and all. There is
something comical about Cahill and his exploits  — he manages to find ways of
circumventing the system in fascinating ways. For example, when in need of arms,
he robbed the police arsenal or when he (or a member of his gang) was on trial,
files would mysteriously disappear from government offices. But Cahill also had a
code of ethics under which he operated and to which he expected his men to adhere.

      By its nature, the film is episodic, focusing on a few of the more daring and
bizarre exploits: robbing a jewelers that even the IRA had declared could not be hit;
stealing priceless works of art and brokering a deal with renegade members of the
IRA. At the same time, Boorman depicts the two sides of the man's character, the
loving father and husband (who admittedly was shared by sisters!) and the leader
who will not tolerate fools in his pack. There are excruciatingly difficult scenes as
Cahill crucifies one of his gang to a pool table because he suspects the man of
stealing.

      At the heart of the film and one of the reasons it works so well is the
performance of Brendan Gleeson. A bearish redhead, Gleeson has offered superlative
work in films including
Braveheart, The Butcher Boy and I Went Down. Bearing
more than a passing physical resemblance to the real-life Cahill, he delivers a
strong anchoring portrait of a complex figure, an intelligent man fueled by anger at
the systems that have oppressed him. Stubborn, sexy, crafty, ironic, his Martin is a
man of many faces yet the character has a tendency to hide his features in public
behind his hand or under a jacket hood to avoid detection.

      Matching him and acting in counterpoint is Jon Voight as the police inspector
Ned Kenney (a fictional character). Kenney sees the man that Cahill might have
been and tries to push him away from a life of crime with little result. The
impeccable supporting cast includes Adrian Dunbar, Sean McGinley, Tom Murphy,
Angeline Ball and Maria Doyle Kennedy.

     Working with the gifted cinematographer Seamus Deasy (who shot the film on
color stock but printed it as black-and-white to avoid "prettifying" the story's
locations), Boorman has created a stunning look into the heart and soul of a master
thief. There might be debate over whether he actually captured this enigmatic
figure, but what he does present is both entertaining and thought-provoking. There
are other versions of Cahill's life on film, including
Ordinary Decent Criminal, a
fictionalized account with Kevin Spacey in the lead, but Boorman and his cast set
the gold standard.


                                 Rating:                 A-
                           
MPAA Rating:        R for violence and pervasive language
                           
Running time:       124 mins.