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Nashville Scene Criminal Element

Jaunty film examines Irish thief's cult appeal

By Noel Murray

MARCH 22, 1999:  When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose" is a catchy way to explain the immoral acts of a desperate man; but the phrase can also describe how an impoverished public avoids passing moral judgments on such a man. In the '30s, economically depressed Americans were captivated by the exploits of Al Capone and Bonnie and Clyde, partly impressed by the sheer gumption of criminals who got rich by outthinking (and terrorizing) the powers that be. Even in relatively prosperous times like these heady late '90s, the fetish for gangsta rap and Tarantino films can be traced to the culture's general obsession with money, and to the acute awareness of how rich the very rich are, in comparison with the rest of us.

The same goes for people's fascination with Martin Cahill, the Irish thief whose exploits in the '80s and '90s inspired John Boorman's fascinating, cracklingly entertaining film The General. By all accounts, Cahill, played here by the fast-talking, doughy Brendan Gleeson, was a hero to his neighbors in the Dublin community of Hollyfield. Like the rest of them, he queued up every week for his welfare check; but while he was cultivating the image of a struggling slave to the dole, Cahill was sneaking out at night to the tony quarters of Dublin, robbing estates of readily fence-able treasures. Boorman's biopic plays up the self-contrived dichotomies of Cahill's life for darkly humorous effect, and it's a great deal of fun to watch, even if the emphasis on audience amusement somewhat undercuts the film's more sobering themes.

The General starts on the day in 1994 when an IRA operative shot Cahill in the face, ending his life. Boorman runs the plot backwards from the assassination until he gets to Cahill's youth, when the budding outlaw stole food for his family (with more lan than most hooligans). Using jump cuts and swish-pans in a style reminiscent of Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas, Boorman rockets through Cahill's development as a criminal--following him as he bounces in and out of detention homes and prisons, assembles a loyal gang of local crooks, and curries public favor by squatting in a block of flats slated for demolition.

The propulsive backstory isn't the only nod to Martin Scorsese; Boorman also shoots the film in sumptuous black-and-white that recalls the vivid pulp imagery of Raging Bull. The difference is that where Scorsese used music and decor to make his films feel like throwbacks (even when they reached a more modern era), Boorman employs a nondescript Celtic jazz score and thoroughly contemporary locations to make his film feel at once timeless, yet as current as today's newspaper.

Granted, The General is nowhere near as thematically rich as GoodFellas or Raging Bull, but it is deceptively entertaining. The film has two thrilling set pieces--an elaborate jewelry store caper and a high-profile art heist. Both are set up and executed by Boorman in classic Topkapi style, but the ramifications are a little more serious. The director makes it clear that these two pivotal events in the film were also turning points in Cahill's life.

In a way, The General is reminiscent of Boorman's delightful childhood memory play Hope and Glory. Both share an episodic structure, and both move slickly through a span of time with sardonic humor that seems at first inconsequential, albeit enjoyable. But at the end of Hope and Glory, after watching a 10-year-old boy navigate through bombed-out World War II London for two hours, we find that Boorman has wrung something poignant and bittersweet out of his wry survey of the wreckage. Similarly, The General, if not exactly profound, has at least assembled some acute observations not just about criminal life, but about this specific criminal's life.

For all Cahill's tactical brilliance, he suffered the fate of all who walk a crooked path--he had to rely on colleagues with few morals and even less self-restraint. Atypical among men in his profession, Cahill maintained a home in the suburbs for his wife and kids, and he socked his money away, but he still couldn't control his underlings' drug habits or loose lips.

The cult of personality that developed around him is another matter--he carefully controlled that. To the Irish underclass, Cahill wasn't far removed from a man who could kick a ball past a goalie, or string memorable notes together in a recording studio. Was he worth the admiration? Well, Boorman makes it fairly clear that his "oppressed, unemployed laborer" shtick was just that, and that no matter how many free diapers Cahill handed out to working mothers, he still didn't blink an eye when his jewelry store job sent hundreds to the unemployment line for real.

In truth, The General would have been a stronger, gutsier film had Boorman focused more on Cahill's stormy relationship with the IRA, which felt that Cahill and his gang should have donated some of their wealth toward "the cause." As it is, the director relegates the Irish sociopolitical angle to the background, emphasizing instead a breezy tale of clever thieves with little honor.

But there's no denying that as Cahill lives through his last, desperate days--suffering with diabetes, sure that he'd been sold out by his most trusted mates--the film's rollicking tone boomerangs and hits the audience hard. By the film's end, the only one laughing is Boorman, who snickers at those of us who still believe, despite everything we've been taught, that crime pays.

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