' ' Cinema Romantico: Middling Thriller March: The Devil's Own (1997)

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Middling Thriller March: The Devil's Own (1997)

If “The Devil’s Own” is remembered it is less for the finished product than for its tormented production, chronicled extensively in advance of its 1997 spring release. Brad Pitt came aboard because he loved the script, though that script, written by Kevin Jarre, never made it to screen, jettisoned when Harrison Ford signed as a co-star, apparently deeming his whopping $20 million salary an invitation to wielding authority. The two stars, then, purportedly went back and forth during shooting, demanding revisions in response to revisions, predictably leaving them both unhappy. That sounds like the making of a bomb, of course, though what partially stands out re-watching it is how, despite such a plagued backstory, it feels less disaster-y then, well, merely middling. I both do and do not mean that as faint praise. Like “Bohemian Rhapsody” possibly winning the Best Editing Oscar, the bane of Film Twitter, because the crew might well have saved it from out and out disaster, perhaps the same should be said of Alan J. Pakula salvaging what Pitt himself literally deemed dogshit.

Pitt stars as Frankie McGuire, an IRA soldier who arrives in America after a semi slam-bang opening to acquire some missiles to blow his enemies up. This mission entails him staying at the home of New York cop Tom O’Meara (Ford), which might be a narrative stretch with a hazy explanation though that proves less of a problem than an undercooked nature of the main story and Tom’s emergent subplot. Well, subplot might not be the right word; it’s more like Main Story 1A, evidence of those myriad rewrites as Pakula cross-cuts between Frankie’s mission and Tom’s day-to-day life on the beat. The former, however, feels made of spare thriller parts, replete with a hammy villain (Treat Williams) and a banal love interest (Natascha McElhone). Tom’s story, on the other hand, is the stuff of One Good Cop mythos, his partner (Rubén Blades) shooting an unarmed man in the back and then covering it up, forcing Tom to decide whether to be the dreaded snitch or tell what is, based on council given by his wife (Margaret Colin), apparently the first lie of his entire life. 

Tom’s storyline is less about institutional corruption, though, then one bad decision while, unsurprisingly, the shooter’s one bad decision, picking up a gun in the car he’s breaking into and firing in a panic, goes unaddressed. No, the dead man is collateral damage, pressing Tom’s morals to see if he will do a bad thing in return by lying for his partner and essentially bring him down to Frankie’s level. Ford’s gruff tone of virtue, however, sort of inadvertently counteracts his character’s moral equivocating, almost giving the viewer clearance to look the other way too. Pitt fares a little better. Though the moment when Frankie escapes a warehouse unscathed despite being surrounded is too Action Hero-y compared to how he plays the part, Pitt balances the space between his wholly different worlds, not making it feel as if Frankie has to shine it on in the presence of Tom’s family but that radicals are ordinary men too.

Frankie and Tom tethered together might have tracked toward something operatic, as in a Michael Mann movie (or perhaps a Pakula film with the original script), a conclusion where good and evil blurs into something explosive. The movie’s opening scene, after all, sets a political stage with adolescent Frankie witnessing his father being murdered for supporting the IRA, punctuated by a fiery Dolores O’Riordan track. From there, though, bit by bit “The Devil’s Own” takes the piss outta the whole thing. Though Tom’s last name clearly is intended to conjure up his own Irish heritage, that is virtually non-existent in either the performance or the movie, save for the one of mug of Guinness he drinks at dinner. As for Frankie, he might be painted in the opening scenes as a violent militant, but the movie seems to half-forget he is even in the IRA as it goes along, meaning that as his and Tom’s paths converge, the brewing tension is personal rather than political, a plague of rewrites, no doubt, that rewrote everything until The Troubles were strained out.

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