Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi The General

By Devin D. O'Leary

APRIL 5, 1999:  British auteur John Boorman's latest writing/producing/directing effort is a bold, brash and deeply indelible bio-pic of the notorious Dublin gangster Martin Cahill. Cahill was a sort of guttersnipe version of Robin Hood--except that he never really got around to that whole "give to the poor" part. Still, he accrued a kind of bad boy respect from the poor and disenfranchised citizens of Ireland, who elevated him to the status of folk (anti-)hero. Cahill brazenly eluded police capture, openly thumbed his nose at the church, the law and the IRA and ended up stealing more than $60 million in his long career. Still, the brilliant burglar hewed to his own brand of old world honor, remaining fiercely loyal to his cohorts and defending his neighborhood against authoritarian threats. Around this larger-than-life character, Boorman spins a scrappy and exuberant tale of robbery and rebellion.

In a career that has run the gamut of genres and styles, Boorman has touched on war (Hell in the Pacific), science fiction (Zardoz), fantasy (Excalibur), action (The Emerald Forest) and wistful drama (Hope and Glory). He previously tackled the world of crime with his stylish and brutal 1967 thriller Point Blank (recently remade as Payback with Mel Gibson). With such a diverse résumé, it's hard to pin down just what kind of filmmaker John Boorman really is. Whatever their nominal theme, though, nearly all of Boorman's films have dealt with manly men and their manly duties. The General, with its staunchly iconoclast hero and firm anti-establishment tone, follows this trend to a T.

Star Brendan Gleeson (best known as Mel Gibson's bearded sidekick in Braveheart) seizes his role by the throat and never lets go. His Cahill is a calculating businessman with a meticulous sense of planning and an obsessive need for secrecy. Whenever he appears in public, Cahill has a nervous habit of covering his face--partially to conceal his identity and partially as an armor against the world. In reality, images of Cahill regularly appeared in the press, but were always obscured. Although Cahill was a legend in Ireland during his lifetime, his true identity remained an enigma. On the other hand, however, Gleeson's Cahill is a cheeky self-promoter who seems to delight in his cat-and-mouse game with local police. Although the details of his crimes are carried out with the utmost precision and stealth, he makes few attempts to cover up his larcenous lifestyle. Cahill sees no moral wrong in his chosen career field--he's just a working man providing for his family. It's always a fine line between humanizing and romanticizing criminal exploits, and The General creates a perfect balance between Cahill the professional, the father, the idol and Cahill the brutarian, the polygamist, the lawbreaker.

Cahill's crimes are, in fact, so audacious and so airtight (at one point he manages to rob a bank while standing in the police station), that he draws the unrelenting ire of the Dublin police. Frustrated by their inability to pin anything on the wily gangster, they resort to a 24-hour surveillance of the man and his associates. American actor Jon Voight shows up, brogue in hand, as a dogged police inspector determined to bring down Cahill. This marks Voight's first reunion with Boorman since they collaborated on the smash 1972 film Deliverance. Voight is in rare form, keeping his more theatrical side in check and turning in a solid supporting role. His Inspector Kennedy is made real by the grudging respect he affords to Cahill. While other officers are all too happy to torment and brutalize Cahill, Kennedy finds a certain primal kinship.

Lensed in a muddy wash of black and white, The General is one of Boorman's most intense and deeply-felt character studies. In the end, it's hard not to see Martin Cahill exactly as Boorman has envisioned him--a sort of archetypal Celtic chieftain whose rage, cunning, and lust for life made him both enemy and idol. Seeing Boorman's poetic mood-setting and watching Gleeson's commanding performance, it's difficult not to feel that somebody got screwed out of an Academy Award nomination here.

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