There's one stand that every film about the quagmire in Northern Ireland is willing to take: that there's been enough killing. Sometimes, like in A Prayer for the Dying, it's said out loud--"Thur's bin enoof killin'." Sometimes, as in The Crying Game, In the Name of the Father, Some Mother's Son, or even The Informer, it's implicit. To Americans, it seems a hard moral to disagree with, but across the Atlantic, there are obviously plenty of people on all sides of that conflict who think there hasn't been nearly enough killing just yet. What's the matter with them? Don't they go to the movies?
Americans have a warlike reputation--fair enough, in some parts of the world--but the major theme of Alan J. Pakula's drab thriller The Devil's Own is that political violence is alien to us on our own shores. In Belfast, or Beirut, or Tel Aviv, or what's left of Sarajevo, mortar blasts and sniper fire are part of people's everyday lives, more routine than earthquakes to Californians or hurricanes to Floridians.
The other major theme is that Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford are mighty sweet and soulful. Emphasizing that turns out to be far more in the film's commercial interest than fretting about the paradoxes of political morality in Belfast. If only these two were, as well as sweet and soulful, interesting.
In The Devil's Own, Pitt plays Frankie, a tough Republican partisan (he's never absolutely identified as IRA) who goes to New York incognito to buy ground-to-air missiles for shooting down British helicopters. A judge who is secretly a sympathizer arranges for Frankie to stay in Brooklyn with the family of Tommy (Ford), a saintly NYPD sergeant who thinks Frankie is just an ordinary immigrant. Tommy, who has a wife and three daughters, delights in having someone else around the house "who pees standing up," so he and Frankie, who saw his father murdered when he was 8, quickly bond.
But Tommy hates guns and killing. When he and three other cops chase down a shoplifter, he's furious at the kid for putting himself in danger by running. Likewise, when Tommy comes to see Frankie's true identity, he's torn between his fondness for the kid and his desire to prevent more killing, of which, as the other films have already established for us, there's been enough.
Among Pakula's (narrow) gifts as a director is the ability, sometimes, to illicit strong work from his actors. Alas, that has deserted him here, but he isn't the first director who couldn't find a pulse on either of these two. Pitt can sometimes shake a little acting loose--in True Romance and 12 Monkeys, most notably--but here, as more often, he just preens, until it's time to call up his secret weapon: tears. He does manage a respectably opaque brogue, though.
Like Pitt, only more so, Ford has done some fine work. He was dazzling in The Mosquito Coast, and very likable as Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Almost everything else he's done has been bafflingly joyless and slack-faced, like he's been hit in the head with a croquet ball. It's as if, in trying to break away from the action-hero image, he's confused maturity with fatigue--which may ring true, but who wants to see it in a leading man?
To his credit, Ford (who has never shown much interest in strutting his studly testosterone) makes some effort to play against cop-movie stereotypes. He works to make Tommy a mild-mannered, instinctively modest man, and to give a sense of his cultural naivete. But it's an uphill battle--the script, by David Aaron Cohen, Vincent Patrick and Kevin Jarre (from a story by Jarre), keeps virtuous blather pouring out of Tommy's mouth. He'd be better off with Bruce Willis quips. And there are cops-&-robbers banalities, like the diversionary exploding suitcase or the clay-pigeon partner, which even the Bruce Willis pictures have outgrown.
Pakula hasn't been a good director since (or, very often, before) 1976, when he made All the President's Men, which could have been a disastrous docudrama, into a smashing, witty comedy-thriller about Getting the Big Story--sort of The Front Page for the boomer era.
He does know how to pick a cinematographer--Gordon Willis certainly dresses up The Devil's Own in handsome shades of gray--but Pakula's ineptitude with pacing and action can be startling, as in his nadir, The Pelican Brief. That film's showcase suspense scenes, intended as Hitchcockian nail-biters, played like endurance tests for the eyelids.
By virtue of its subject matter, The Devil's Own is, at least, less insipid than the not-so-Brief, but it's ponderously earnest all the same, instantly recognizable as middle-class American tut-tutting. It's also at least nine-tenths dependent on the romantic, picturesque appeal the Irish have for us--can you imagine the indifference this film would meet if Frankie were a Kurd or a Bosnian?
In Neil Jordan's The Crying Game, an English soldier tricks his IRA executioner into falling in love with a transvestite. It is, perhaps, an ironic postmortem revenge, yet it proves redemptive. At the heart of darkness of the "troubles"--the obscenity of occupation, the atrocity of reprisal--this film could still manage a grim smile. Yet when Tommy says he's going to stop the arms shipment to prevent more deaths, Frankie says that he'll have to kill him to do so, and adds, "Gets a bit complicated, doesn't it?" That this is the film's idea of moral and emotional complexity is what gives away The Devil's Own as American studio product. In Irish terms, that's Ambiguity 101.
The Devil's Own
Directed by Alan J. Pakula; with Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt and Margaret Colin.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.