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The Boston Phoenix Child's Play

John Boorman's four-star General

By Peter Keough

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  The last day in the life of Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson), a/k/a "The General," modern crime legend and the scourge and delight of Dublin, begins auspiciously enough. The fleets of police cars on the street outside his home and the rows of constables poking their heads over his hedges have vanished. But Cahill has reason to be suspicious as he starts his car -- an IRA hitman sprints out of the foliage and pumps three bullets into his head.

So begins John Boorman's sly and sardonic masterpiece The General, and shot in the saturated inks of a tabloidish black and white, it's a sordid end indeed. Moments later, though, an odd thing happens. The bullets magically zap from the murdered man's body and return to the killer's pistol. In a twist of whimsy, the film rewinds, and a close-up of Cahill's restored face dissolves into his as a young boy in the act of fleeing with a bag of stolen potatoes while taunting the police in pursuit.

That sequence sums up the spirit of The General, the mixture of ruthlessness and play, the circular fatality of tragedy, myth, and games. Combining the generic tautness of Boorman's Point Blank and Deliverance with the depth of character, setting, and tone of his autobiographical Hope and Glory, it's the director's best film to date.

In part that's due to his subject -- Cahill proves a more archetypal figure than all the Arthurian heavyweights of Boorman's Excalibur. From his early days stealing produce and cream buns (one of his few vices), his ambition, ruthlessness, and complexity grow. He becomes the Robin Hood-like leader of a gang of stalwarts (portrayed in standout supporting performances by Adrian Dunbar and Sean McGinley in particular) from his slum neighborhood of Hollyfield who are known for their daring, cunning, and sense of the absurd.

It's this last trickster quality that most distinguishes Cahill -- though he talks a good fight in his condemnation of colonial, capitalist, government, and clerical oppressors, even squatting in a tent to preserve Hollyfield from the developers, the anarchic exuberance of play is what incites him. It's a contagious sensibility, as Boorman unfolds with sleek dexterity Cahill's heist of a fortress-like jewelry warehouse, or his ingenious purloining of a Vermeer and other invaluable canvases from a patrician mansion.

Gleeson's performance, too, makes the outlaw irresistible. He portrays Cahill as a shambling, shapeless buffoon who proves lithe as a ghost drifting through a household selecting booty and voyeuristically observing the secret life of the inhabitants. He's most entertaining in his ploys to escape detection, going in public in ski masks and in a bulging parka that makes him look like an overgrown refugee from South Park, or employing hilarious ruses to baffle the police on his tail. Hand perpetually concealing his face, he's a vaudevillean enigma, a master showman in the art of covering up, donning Groucho glasses in, as a barrister intones, "a silly attempt to disguise himself," then doing a striptease when the press demands he "show himself."

Boorman does show him, however, and not always for laughs. It's all fun and games until Cahill maims a witness with a car bomb, nails an underling suspected of treachery to a pool table, and has sister-in-law Tina (Angeline Ball) move in with him and wife Frances (Maria Doyle Kennedy) to form a ménage à trois. (Cahill's domestic arrangements are bizarre, endearing, and oddly conventional.) Far from being a Tarantino-esque pastiche, Cahill is something much more primal -- a throwback to a tribal, pagan past. In short, he's a juvenile delinquent, and perpetual childhood has its price. As he enjoys one of his more flagrant jokes, he collapses. One of his puerile pleasures has turned on him -- the cream buns have finally taken their toll, leaving him with diabetes.

But it's not just his body that lets him down -- his colleagues and his sense of humor betray him as well. Shadowed by his nemesis, a police inspector played by a raffishly sinister and ambivalently upright Jon Voight, The General shambles to its fatal, final rendezvous with picaresque inevitability. With half his crew on smack, the IRA on his tail after he sells the stolen paintings to the Provos, even his pigeons butchered by the cloddish cops, Cahill's fate is squalid and typical. Not so its metamorphosis into the rueful beauty of The General, Boorman's portrait of the artist as a career criminal.

Martin and John

NEW YORK -- British-born writer/director John Boorman had a personal connection to Irish crimelord Martin Cahill, the subject of The General: Cahill allegedly stole from Boorman's home in Ireland a souvenir from the filmmaker's classic Deliverance, his gold record for "Duelling Banjos," a burglary re-created in the movie.

More than that, what fascinated Boorman about Cahill was "this complexity he had, the fact that someone who did this military-style planning was also a clown. He could be tender and brutal and witty and crude. And I've been living there for 30 years, and there were a few things I wanted to say about it. Because he was so opposed to society, he eliminated it, really."

The General portrays Cahill as a sort of Robin Hood who targeted the Irish establishment, though Boorman says the film does not romanticize the criminal. "It was enormously controversial before it opened in May, shortly after Cannes [where Boorman was named Best Director]. A lot of people, for instance, this forensic scientist he blew up in the car, he was giving interviews saying he was still in pain, and that it was wrong to make a film about him. And these accusations about glorifying crime were hurled at us. I showed this man being blown up, I showed him courageously testifying in court, I showed what actually happened. I wasn't glorifying it in any way. Once people saw the film, they recognized that. I was a little bit nervous because there's something in this film to offend almost everybody in Ireland, the police, the IRA, the church, the government, the civil servants. Fortunately, there were no repercussions."

Star Brendan Gleeson too was worried about romanticizing Cahill, but he also wanted to be fair to a man who died only recently (in 1994) and whose family and associates would bristle at a smear. He felt he couldn't fully inhabit the role until, in rehearsal, "Jon Voight told me just to make my peace with Martin. I can't please everybody. I didn't want to carry that agenda. That was the thing that took a lot of stuff off my shoulders when Jon said that. As much as I could, I did him justice. I can look him in the eye and say, 'This wasn't a cheap shot.' Maybe I got it completely wrong, but I tackled it with integrity. There's nothing more I can do if somebody's going to take umbrage at it."

Voight, who plays Cahill's police nemesis, explains why it was so hard for the police to catch Cahill. "They knew what was going on with him, but the police had some problems dealing with it. In Dublin, they didn't deal ordinarily with serious crime. They didn't have the equipment. They didn't have guns at the time. They couldn't do very much. And Cahill was very tricky. They knew when he showed up at the police station that something was going on, that his gang was performing something, and he was getting his alibi. But they couldn't break him. He was very clever."

Boorman, who is known for films set in green forests and jungles (from Deliverance to Beyond Rangoon) shot this Emerald Isle tale in black-and-white. "It is a bit of an irony, isn't it?" he laughs, then explains, "Because it was about recent events, I wanted to give it some distance. Because of the awful distraction of contemporary colors, I wanted to give it a unified look. It's much more intense, too. It feels like peeling away skin when you shoot close- ups of the actors. And black-and-white helps the mythic dimension of the film. It's closer to the condition of dreaming and the unconscious."

Cahill's complexity is encapsulated in the already notorious sequence where he crucifies a supposedly disloyal underling on a pool table, then apologizes and drives him to the hospital. "There was something even further which I couldn't put in," says Boorman. "It would have been too complicated. They passed a law in Ireland whereby, if you were the victim of malicious damage, you could claim compensation from the government. As he [Martin] was taking Jimmy to the hospital, he said, 'You know, you've got a good claim for malicious compensation.' That was typical of this extraordinarily twisted mind he had."

-- Gary Susman

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