Fifty Dead Men Walking
Set in the late 1980’s at the height of the conflict between the British Army (more specifically the RUC) and the IRA, Fifty Dead Men Walking takes the viewer deep inside the war by way of Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess), a young, struggling salesman who finds his calling in life as an undercover RUC agent who penetrates the IRA. A quick history of the violence is given but any prior knowledge you can bring into the theatre is a plus, as the picture does not slow down for the historically challenged.
Martin is recruited by Fergus (Ben Kingsley) partly because of his tough stubbornness and the fact that he already has a standing vendetta against the IRA. His new position gives him purpose in life and very quickly (at least on screen) things begin to come together for him. Clocking in at just under the two-hour mark, this movie, based on the autobiography of the real life Martin McGartland (who has renounced this movie and wishes no association with it), moves at a rapid pace and refuses to bore the audience.
Ireland is beautifully filmed and director Kari Skogland does a great job of contrasting the soft pastoral look of the daytime with the slick, industrialized wasteland it becomes at night. At its best this film conjures up memories of the Jim Sheridan’s finer work (In the Name of the Father, In America), but much of that power is squandered by a lackluster script which might leave you feeling as though you had just watched a bad Donnie Brasco remake.
All of Martin’s time is spent traveling between his two worlds and yet neither setting has any real distinct character. This takes away from the scenes involving his work and his life as they are dry and indistinguishable from one another. Instead the best parts are those dealing with his family. Love, in this case, is not just tacked on to add soul to a main character, but is shown to be a complex issue that affects his work life as he tries to balance the two. Natalie Press (so good in My Summer of Love and Red Road) plays his wife and here she continues to steal scenes and live in relative obscurity. She is most interesting when blissfully living off of his sins but fighting to keep herself at a distance from his profession.
After a while paranoia begins to set in and Martin considers exiting stage right. Fergus gives him an escape route but he neglects to take it as he is now addicted to the lifestyle, whether he knows it or not. That leaves him stranded in a vulnerable position. The suspicion continues to roll in and the heat gets turned up, but he simply cannot let it all go. Neither he nor his wives are strong enough to do the right thing.
Much about the film feels solid and professional. Rose McGowan does good work as Grace, a predatory flirt who works for the IRA and tries hard to bed Martin. Perhaps in a better movie she would have felt like more of a threat to Martin and his family, but the sheer energy she provides should be enough to satisfy most. The deeper you get into the movie, the more chaotic everything becomes. There are intense scenes of torture that serve to disgust the audience and remind them that torture is hardly an effective tool in intelligence gathering.
Unfortunately there is also a bit of amateurism that hangs in the air. For instance, the film opens with a quick scene – less than a minute long – that gives away the fact that Martin lives through the whole ordeal. It is a stupid move that plays a major role in the sinking of the entire production. If we know that he lives, what possible suspense could there be? This isn’t a romantic comedy after all. It’s too bad too because that one artistic decisions undermines something that was quite good, leaving it to languish somewhere between good and bad.
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, Rose McGowan, Natalie Press
Director: Kari Skogland
Runtime: 117 minutes
Distributor: Brightlight Pictures
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