The General (1998)
Directed and written by John Boorman
Two films heading off in different directions, but both about Dublin crimelord Martin Cahill, known as ‘The General’ for the way he marshalled his gang and its activities.
In ODC the main character (played by Kevin Spacey) is renamed Michael Lynch as if to distance itself from the Boorman picture (with Brendan Gleeson in the lead), which came out whilst it was still in production as a more straight forward Cahill biopic, but even then it follows the same basic mythology. In both films Cahill/Lynch is shown as something of a romantic robber, stealing from the rich and making monkeys of the Gardai; he goes to great lengths to hide his face from reporters; he undertakes high profile, crowd-pleasing heists; he gets into conflict with the IRA; and he relates his earlier struggle against eviction from the condemned Hollyfield Buildings.
Oh yes, and in each film he suckles from the teat of both his wife and her sister – Maria Doyle Kennedy and Angeline Ball in The General, Linda Fiorentino and Helen Baxendale in ODC. All good, clean polyamorous fun.
Where the films diverge is in tone and in conclusion: the Boorman film presents a more conflicted, more morally ambiguous central character, whereas in the O’Sullivan version Lynch is essentially a cheeky chappy throughout, a master criminal planning evermore spectacular ways to show up the cops. The nearest we see him in morally ambiguous terms is when, whilst the polis are piling on the pressure, he snaps at his wife. Even when torturing a gang member to ascertain whether he had doublecrossed him, it’s done in such a lovable way that the audience is chuckling away at it all. The Gleeson version, however, we see in much darker situations. He considers ratting on his compadres, his crimes affect not just the rich on high, and his violence is far less funny.
That’s not to say that The General is a great film and that ODC isn’t, though; I think both are strong works, trying to do different things with the same source material. The General is structured more as a tragedy, whereas ODC is a fairy tale, a folk myth, subjugating the blood and tears to the greater meaning of sticking it to The Man. The chutzpah with which O’Sullivan pulls together his plot and characters might be related to his being a comparatively youthful 53 against Boorman’s 65 at the time of production; it was only his 6th feature, ten behind Boorman. But whatever way you slice this cheese, the pickle is different. ODC, whilst not sinking to the same son & lumière LCD depths of that wave of gangster BritFlicks of the late 90s/early 00s (Circus, Rancid Aluminium and all), still has a gurt big cartoon tiger in its tank powering it along. It’s pedal-to-the-metal, roaring ahead to a happy ending and worrying about the moral implications afterwards. The General, by contrast, revels in the soul of its characters, in their struggles. Gleeson’s Cahill is bloke-in-the-pub funny, but narky and scary with it. He dresses badly, he hurts people, and you’re not sure you actually like him. Spacey’s Lynch, on the other hand, is bright and breezy and oh-what-a-card.
Another way to look at it is to consider their principal nemeses. For Gleeson/Cahill, it’s Jon Voight as Inspector Ned Kenny, for Spacey/Lynch, it’s Stephen Dillane as Inspector Noel Quigley. Whereas Kenny is an assiduous investigator and morally driven, as well as being a hard bastard, Quigley is most definitely from the fuck-this-let’s-shoot-the-cunts school of policing, and might well have been teamed up with Sean Pertwee from 51st State in a previous posting. Kenny tries to empathise with Cahill, tries to outthink him, tries to social engineer him into making mistakes; Quigley is a straight ahead, screws-on, pressure up jack. In The General the struggle between crook and cop is long-game, it’s chess; in ODC it’s brute force, badminton with explosive shuttlecocks.
Well, this is dragging on a touch, so a quick rundown of some of the other stuff: The General was apparently shot in colour, but released in both colour and black & white versions; having only seen the b&w one, I’d say that as with La Haine (also shot in colour but printed monochromatically) the loss of colour helps push the story along, removing a distraction. ODC is nicely edited together (by William M Anderson, whose journeyman career has taken in greats like Breaker Morant as well as rent-payers like, um, City Slickers II: The Legend Of Curly’s Gold), and has a punchy rhythm to it which helps distract away from a more episodic structure. Gleeson, Kennedy and Ball capture the dynamic of an unconventional but tightly-knit family well, and Voight is excellent as Cahill’s pursuer. There’s also Adrian Dunbar giving good gangster as Cahill’s main lieutenant. Over on ODC I’d say Spacey captures the right spirit for the film as a whole, but he does sometimes give in to standard Spacey mugging mode. Fiorentino does manage to imbue some sense of a person into her rather underwritten part, while Baxendale just seems to recite the lines. A shame, but then the whole family aspect of the story is somewhat neglected. Dillane isn’t really called upon to do much more than shout and look immensely angry for most of the time, and he does that admirably. Similarly Patrick Malahide gets a nice payday as a comic boss cop, Commissioner Daly, but it’s not really acting, is it? On the other hand, Peter Mullan and David Hayman are top notch as Lynch’s oppos, providing a bit of traction for Spacey to work with; there’s also an early Colin Farrell bit as one of the younger cohorts – again, good for what’s there. And perhaps most tantalising of all, there’s Vincent Regan as ex-IRA man Shay Kirby. All in all though The General has it over ODC on the acting onions. And there’s a lot of plastic shillelagh accents on show in ODC
Anyway, if you’ve not seen either or both, do check them out, they are worth watching. And check out the directors’ other stuff.
There’s lots to recommend with Boorman – Point Blank, Hell In The Pacific, Deliverance, Excalibur, then there’s the oddity that is a Mexican moustachioed Sean Connery in a nappy in Zardoz; I’d steer you towards his love poem to the Amazon, The Emerald Forest, but suggest you avoid the steaming shitpile that is Exorcist II: The Heretic. His wartime childhood flick Hope And Glory is better than its reviews might indicate, but Beyond Rangoon is an emotionally cheap journey into the democracy movement in 80s Burma, and doesn’t compare well with similar films like The Killing Fields, Under Fire or The Year Of Living Dangerously. Oh, and of course there’s his masterful Le Carré adaptation, The Tailor Of Panama, though that’s pretty much down to the awesome performances IMO.
I’m much less familiar with O’Sullivan, but I’d definitely recommend Nothing Personal, which sort of plays as a Salò to 1970s Loyalism, or an Ulster Lacombe Lucien. It’s dark in tone, rich in structure, and beats the crap out of Resurrection Man (though that film is a guilty pleasure of mine).