Review: “The Boondock Saints”

The Boondock Saints is that rare example of cinema: the product of an average Joe Schmoe’s moviemaking pipedream brought to life by the luck of the Irish, and regrettably so. Film buffs may recall: in the mid-‘90s, a Boston bartender named Troy Duffy wrote a script on a whim, got it into the hands of Harvey Weinstein and—despite various struggles and an eventual falling out with Weinstein—notched a $6 million budget and an ensemble boasting an Oscar nominee and a well-established Scottish comedian. Everyone has a story to tell, and plenty fantasize about manifesting their stories into books and movies, though few such fantasies are fulfilled. Duffy’s was, and the result is an essential warning to all aspiring filmmakers about the dangers of ego, and a reminder as to why Hollywood’s gatekeepers are so hesitant to let newbies in. I’m writing a South Boston-set crime novel that I hope to turn into a screenplay (so you see, I’m a dreamer, too), and in my research on the place, I’d tried to control the temptation to watch this. Few films are as clear an indicator of the divide between critics and regular filmgoers; Saints has a 20% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and, at last check, a 7.9 out of 10 on IMDB, which puts it on the cusp of that site’s coveted Top 250. It failed-at-the-box-office-and-has-since-become-a-“cult-classic.” Alas, I’ve seen the film, and I’m glad I have because now I can wax on about how right the critics are. Paddy Chayefsky, the master screenwriter behind Network, once advised budding writers, “First, cut out all the beautiful stuff, slash, slash, slash.” The Boondock Saints is just under two hours of such “beautiful stuff.”

Not everyone is an artist; not everyone can make art. It takes education, talent and discipline. Duffy had too much education, some talent and almost no discipline; he has potential, and he squanders it on his near-total lack of artistic control. This much is evident as the film begins. After a priest delivers an overtly thematic sermon on “the indifference of good” to all the evil in this world (he brings up Kitty Genovese), we delve into a schizoid credits sequence smashing together Boston scenery, schmaltzy bagpipe braying, and an introduction to our two main characters, native-Irish twins Murphy and Connor MacManus (Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flanery), who work as butchers. One of the twins—I can’t remember the distinctions between the two, nor do I want to—is indoctrinating a greenhorn, a woman, and uses the term “rule of thumb,” which moves her to educate him on the (likely apocryphal) misogynistic origins of that phrase. Apparently, long ago, a husband could beat his wife with a stick as long as its diameter was no greater than that of his thumb. I’d bet that somewhere, while writing his script, Duffy heard that factoid and couldn’t resist the chance to put it in the film. Yet, he doesn’t know what to do with it, nor how to weave it into a larger framework. The scene quickly forgets about the woman and devolves into a playful brawl. As it turns out, that woman is arguably the movie’s most substantial female presence.

Duffy has been labeled a Tarantino wannabe, and aptly so, as Duffy not only apes Tarantino’s juggling of factoids in drawn-out conversation but also his toying with chronology. In his efforts to provoke the audience with time jumps, Duffy fumbles. His main conceit involves getting the twins, who become vigilantes, into situations that prime them to kill some bad guys; then flash-forwarding to the eccentric, opera-loving, homosexual FBI detective Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe) reconstructing the crime scene; during which there are several flashbacks to the crime taking place, which confirm Smecker. Done once and well, such a structural device can pay off. Duffy uses this calling card no less than four times, and poorly throughout. This crutch becomes tiresome and predictable, even onanistic, very rapidly, with little sense of development to be found between the four set pieces. They’re all just scenes of the twins slaughtering a bunch of stock Italian and Russian criminal bigwigs—with their friend Rocco (David Della Rocco) often stumbling in and joining the gang—that drag on for far too long and grow increasingly implausible and stupid. These guys wouldn’t last a day in the real world; they make Bernie Goetz look like a genius. Once again, I see potential in Duffy. I see creativity in the moment when past and present conflate and Smecker joins the twins on their spectacular killing spree. But by that scene, we’ve reached the fourth iteration of the director’s trademark move, and we’re sick of it all.

Duffy’s hubris matches that of his witless protagonists. He wants us to think he’s wrestling with the moral dilemma of vigilantism when he isn’t; it’s pretty clear the MacManus twins are heroes, and we’re supposed to be rooting for them. Their butchery of villains comes off as slick, smug, self-indulgent entertainment. In this respect, Duffy is ethically dishonest. (The end credits run over a day-late-dollar-short sequence in which passersby on the local news give divergent opinions of the twins and their mission to rid Boston of evil. Nice try.) What’s even worse from a narrative standpoint is that Duffy is too easy on his twins. In one scene that had my eyes rolling, Smecker goes into a confessional booth. The twins, unnoticed by Smecker, are holding the priest hostage in the booth behind. I see cleverness in this setup, but cleverness needs a focused vision and a restrained hand to translate well, and Duffy lacks both. He kills the scene by having Smecker confess that he’s on the twins’ side and that he’d rather not arrest them. With the FBI compromised, the twins face no conflict and no significant opposition, and the audience checks out.

On the other side of the law, the Italian mafia recruits a hitman, “Il Duce” (Billy Connolly), out of prison to hunt down these goons. One second we see Il Duce in prison, and the next he’s magically bailed out and facing the twins head-on in an absurd shootout that has the ammunition of Peckinpah but not the blood. (The worst injury sustained is a lost finger. Come on.) Spoiler alert: the Italians take the twins prisoner, and their capo, Papa Joe (Carlo Rota), guns down Rocco. In the twins’ effort to escape, not only does Smecker—convincingly if campily dressed as a female hooker—aid them. Il Duce, out of nowhere, turns on the Italians and reveals himself to be not Italian but Irish and not just that but also—wait for it—a MacManus! He recognizes the family prayer the twins are reciting over Rocco’s dead body and joins them on their quest. What a fucking cop-out. (Wikipedia tells me he’s the twin’s father, which makes the prior shootout even more ludicrous. It’s never clarified how he doesn’t recognize his sons until this late.)

That pathetic anticlimax is followed by one of the dumbest and ugliest film endings I’ve seen in a long time. The MacManus trio breaks into Papa Joe’s trial, manages to subdue all the police and justice officials, and proceeds to address everyone present with a pre-rehearsed speech about what they plan to do with their vigilantism and how they think it’ll help Boston. Connor and Murphy exchange dialogue in a too-perfect, too-obviously scripted way that hints at Duffy’s true intentions: not to question the moral quandaries of taking the law into your own hands, but to kick off a hip new franchise. Il Duce demands that a young lady, a witness, watch their vengeful assassination of Papa Joe—a gesture that is meant to offer catharsis but that actually comes off as cruel. As the three mercenaries stand ready to execute Papa Joe, their Irish prayer overpowers his Italian prayer, a creative choice that reeks of a medieval anti-Italian racism and depicts the vigilantism as a thin veil for an uppity religious crusade. (Curiously, the twins are Irish and not Bostonian; they’re transplanted Eurotrash serial killers.) Duffy and the MacMani don’t stop for once to consider, as Hamlet does, whether Papa Joe’s prayer will send him to Heaven. They just blow him away, as Smecker watches through a crack in the door and grimaces, and as everyone else shrieks in horror, while Duffy expects us to be in awe of his brave heroes. Add to all this some truly crappy acting from the bit players—from the bartender with the lazy Tourette’s mugs to the token Asian guy who wants to cuddle with Smecker—and you have an intriguing, clever but ultimately mindless and cowardly film.

To the extent that you should watch this, I implore you to watch it as a double feature with Overnight, the making-of documentary by Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith. Shot on cheap camcorder with unfiltered wind noise, it’s a neat look at the mid-‘90s—which is such a foreign land by now that there are already period pieces of it—and at pre-9/11 Hollywood, and it manages some poetry. There are some ethically troubling moments, such as the decision to include shots of a drunk woman flashing her breasts in a bar and a nude beach at Cannes, but beyond this, it confirms most of the suspicions I had about Duffy. He’s an asshole, and his ego not only interfered with any talent he may have but also wrecked the careers and lives of everyone who joined him for the ride. Men of such stature as Dafoe and Connolly only agreed to act in this trainwreck insofar as they had a good time making the damn movie. God knows what Weinstein and company saw in the script, but one can understand why he backed out of Duffy’s passion project and why no one in Hollywood wanted to get involved in this film, nor release it when it was finished. As I’ve said, the best function of The Boondock Saints is as a lesson on what happens when a director thinks everything with his name on it is gold and can’t muster the humility to take a step back and judge his work with a fresh eye. In calling it a cult classic, one sullies that fine label awarded to such masterpieces as Harold and Maude. This isn’t a classic in any sense. This is the best cinematic equivalent I know of a man jacking off in a motel bathroom. The pleasure is his alone, and no one else’s.

Grade: D

Review: “The Boondock Saints”

Review: “eXistenZ”

David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ is one in a long line of meta-films that uses its Russian-doll texture to dissect cinema as an art form, revealing its conceits and forcing viewers to reckon with what it means to sit down and watch a movie. Building its story around a network of video-game virtual realities, eXistenZ depicts the traditional filmic narrative as a technology in itself, and in that respect, it has a point. The clichés and formulas that go into constructing the plots, scripts and characters of too much of what we see today can be and have been read—rather glibly, I will admit—as “machines,” and it is not difficult to criticize Hollywood in its current incarnation as a “factory,” or an “assembly line.” One of the goals of eXistenZ is to satirize this idea by reconceiving bad films as technology gone awry; shallow characters, absurd genre tropes, clunky dialogue, deer-in-the-headlights non-reactions and preposterous accents are all given a computer-glitch veneer. This is clever, but what the film often forgets is that there’s a human element to art. What it means to look like a riff on bad acting and storytelling comes off as laziness and a lack of inspiration that uses its badness as an excuse to nudge the audience into reflecting on cinema as a construction.

The film opens in an old church, where a Greek chorus of twelve volunteers get in a semicircle onstage to test out eXistenZ, the hot new console from shy, reclusive gaming wunderkind Allegra Gellar (a miscast Jennifer Jason Leigh). I take “Allegra” to be the feminine of allegro, the Italian tempo marking for “lively,” somewhat fast compositions; the name here is a misnomer. Cronenberg moves his stories along at a slow, methodical, deep-rumbling pace, and with this material, he is hampered by it. As the introduction proceeds, a would-be assassin rises screaming “Death to the demoness!”, shoots her in the shoulder and gets dispatched by security guards while chaos consumes the place. At the lumbering pace it goes, it’s hardly convincing; in real life, one imagines, the assassin would be taken down before getting the word “demoness” out of his mouth, and the audience would be even more frantic (Cf. Malcolm X’s death in the Spike Lee biopic). All the actors look stiff-jointed, as if they’re swimming in Drano.

Allegra is rescued by officer Ted Pikul (the usually reliable Jude Law), who takes out the bullet and hides her in a motel. Filmed in rural parts of Ontario on a $15-million budget, eXistenZ does not quite achieve a plausible science-fiction environment, limiting itself as it does to the church, cheap motels, a skiing chalet, a trout farm, a mall that looks obviously in-studio, a dated van, and a dated gas station/garage—and when I say “dated,” I mean dated even by present standards. Yes, I get that the future will still have its undeveloped backwoods, and yes, I get that Allegra, with the fatwa on her head, would want to hold demo sessions far removed from urban metropolises. Even then, the mismatch is jarring, and I was left wondering how the hell such a vibrant gaming culture found its way into north Ontario (Cf. the way Kubrick suggested the future with just some judicious location choices in A Clockwork Orange). There’s still some gnarly world-building to make up for that, thankfully: the two-headed reptiles, the guns made of bones (with teeth for bullets), the pulsing fleshy gaming pods, and of course the vaginal bio-ports (a classic Cronenberg motif) inserted just above the tailbone, into which the pods’ umbilical cords go.

Allegra needs to enter her game to make sure it survived the assassination attempt, and she needs Ted to join her. Much fuss is spent on how Ted is a hesitant gaming virgin who needs his bio-port installed. The two head to a gas station attendant (Willem Dafoe, a rare breed of actor who will do pretty much anything) who installs pods on the side with what looks like an uber-industrial gas canister. He seems to worship Allegra, then turns on her. The film takes way too long to get us into the eXistenZ universe, and when it does, that’s when the acting starts getting very deliberately ham-fisted. Exhibit A: the scene in which Allegra and Ted discover that their characters share an intense sexual attraction. It is beside the point that this ruins the male-female friendship that is so often ruined in movies when the filmmakers give in to the temptation to have their lead actor and actress shag each other. Notice how Law and Leigh go back and forth between two modes of acting—them figuring out their characters, and their characters walking the walk to first base. A more authentic situation would have a liminal phase in between, in which the boundaries between personas are tested and muddled, but the actors, talented as I know they are, don’t bother with this. Exhibit B: in a Chinese restaurant, Law eats a cooked twin reptile and builds a gun out of its skeleton. He claims that it tastes disgusting and that he’s fighting his character’s urge to eat it and construct the gun but he’s failing poorly. Law’s poor acting shows no evidence of a genuine struggle, though; the whole time, we watch him merely tearing reptile flesh off the bone as if it were a tasty buffalo wing, and talking casually about the horror of it.

I could go on, and if I started now about the parts where the characters turn into frozen bodies shouting icy-venomous villainous platitudes, I wouldn’t stop. Granted, there are some strong performances on the sidelines: Ian Holm as a Russian surgeon focused on fixing diseased and wounded pods; Callum Keith Rennie, juggling multiple roles as seamlessly as one would expect Law and Leigh to; Oscar Hsu, doing all he can as a stereotyped Chinese waiter; and Sarah Polley, doing all she can in her very limited screen time. But that’s not enough to push this film above water. At the point when it ought to be devolving into disturbing incoherence, the story instead devolves into a somewhat straightforward shoot-‘em-up, ending with an inexplicable betrayal, followed by an absolute cop-out of a twist that negates the whole film, which itself turns out to be a lame false ending. Making a meta-film that lampoons cinema is not an excuse for subpar acting and a subpar story; there are great meta-films (Bergman’s Persona, for one) that have stripped cinema bare while retaining great performances and refusing to toss story to the wind. I’m on a downward trajectory with Cronenberg. First, I watched A History of Violence, which is a masterpiece; then Eastern Promises, which is fine; then Dead Ringers, which is masterful right up until its lackluster ending; then this, which is a disappointment. Someone please tell me which of his I should watch next.

Grade: C

Review: “eXistenZ”