The General (1998)

D: John Boorman
S: Brendan Gleeson, Jon Voight, Maria Doyle Kennedy

The General marks director John Boorman's return to the gangster genre after a thirty year hiatus. But where Point Blank was a radical rewriting of familiar codes and conventions released at a moment in American film history where rethinking was everything, The General is more classical in form and structure, right down to the use of black and white cinematography (albeit anamorphic). Of course, as with all of Boorman's work, it's not quite that simple. Apart from the fact that this particular classical gangster tale is set in contemporary Dublin and manages to draw in and upon several major social and political threads defining urban Irish life, it is also inflected with the director's characteristic metaphysical concerns and alive with powerful imagery which transgresses the demands of narrative and characterisation.

Based on events in the life of Dublin crime lord Martin Cahill (some true, some myth), the film follows the standard rise-and-fall structure of the classical gangster film. It begins with Cahill's death in 1994, but immediately juxtaposes the face of actor Brendan Gleeson with that of young Eamon Owens (The Butcher Boy), as a young Dublin thief leading the Gardai on a merry chase through the tenements. Setting the pattern for the rest of the film and obeying the laws of the genre (seen from The Public Enemy to Goodfellas), it immediately engages the audience's sympathies with the lovable rogue whose opposition to the powers that be may be seen as a form of social protest, or at least an on screen catharsis for members of the audience frustrated with their own realities.

The film which follows plays heavily on the opposition between The General and the Gardai, particularly his arch rival, a stern officer played by veteran American actor Jon Voight (star of Boorman's Deliverance). It consistently demands we empathise with the outsider, not the authority figure. It is also often funny, and the childish hijinks and vicious thuggery of its characters are metered out in even doses calculated to take the audience on a journey from empathy to abjection which is central to the genre.

While this entirely standard formal structure is hardly likely to raise an eyebrow beyond these shores, it has led to a baffling level of controversy among members of the press and the Government here in Ireland. Certain ordinary people, victims of The General and his gang, have also been outspoken on the portrayal of this despicable arch criminal as a lovable Dublin lad with a keen sense of humour and a number of human passions which make him more approachable in fiction than he ever was in fact.

It is a typical case of Irish ignorance insofar as the entire (and admittedly not all that huge) controversy replicates the comment by a Limerick politician upon the release of Michael Collins that "It's not history the way Gandhi is history,": films are all very well, but the closer you get to a recognisable reality, the more irrational and intolerant people become. The General is very close in spirit to Howard Hawks' Scarface , a film whose tentative links to factual reality and whose pertinent comments upon real life have become confused in the minds of reactionary viewers eager to proscribe the limits of social discourse.

Gangster films require the audience to admire their criminal protagonists, but they do not suggest that their actions should be emulated. Gangster films acknowledge social problems, particularly urban ones, and while the gangster always seems to have the answers, they invariably sow the seeds of their own downfall and reap violent death at the hands of forces finally beyond their control.

Luckily, Boorman is canny enough to realise that controversy is a feature of Irish film making anyway (his own involvement in the Angel affair back in 1981 will have made him immune to it at this stage). The result is that his film is a beautifully crafted Boormanesque take on the gangster film which should appeal to genuine cineastes the world over. Like Neil Jordan's adaptation of The Butcher Boy, this Irish film film is not intended as a portrait of Ireland, but a dark mirror of its subconscious held at a peculiar angle by a genuine cinematic visionary.

In the role of Cahill, Brendan Gleeson excels yet again, firmly establishing himself as the top Irish actor of the last few years (seen most recently in I Went Down). His affable slobbery is far from glamorous, but nonetheless effective, especially in conjunction with and contrast to Jon Voight's intense, tight-lipped performance as his chief pursuer. Some moral and sexual complications are raised in the performances of The Commitments co-stars Maria Doyle Kennedy and Angeline Ball as Cahill's 'wives', and Sean McGinley contributes another wonderfully sleazy characterisation as one of his henchmen. Adrian Dunbar is suitably ambiguous as Cahill's closest associate, who may or may not have sold him out. An able supporting cast of familiar faces (including a turn by director Jim Sheridan) fills out a Dublin cityscape replete with the currents and rhythms of recent Irish society, including questions of clerical abuse, the drugs trade, urban renewal, paramilitary activity, housing, social welfare and the legal system. All of these are underlaid with familiar concerns of Irish cinema such as family, religion, community and the quasi-mythic representation of violence.

Again, many of these elements are standard to the genre. Boorman handles them deftly, and with mesmeric images (by Seamus Deasy) and beautifully measured editing (by Ron Davis), the film is never less than interesting even when it is at its most generically predetermined. The threads of genre, narrative and social specificity are skilfully wound together, resulting in a film which works on several levels.

Where it doesn't work is in its moments of psychological analysis. This is not really a film about personality, it is about abstract concepts of people in general. But it plays many of the familiar cards of the genre in its characterisation of cop/criminal as opposite sides of the coin, and the final confrontation between them in a darkened jail cell offers more in the way of atmosphere and tone than in insightful dialogue as Cahill reveals to his nemesis that he has brought him down to his level.

To be fair, Boorman has never been about classically rounded characters and gritty realism. His films are always possessed of a heightened sense of the structures of human behaviour and their appropriate and inappropriate application to a sometimes hostile, mostly alienating landscape (Deliverance, Zardoz, The Emerald Forest, Beyond Rangoon). The General is a multi-layered text, a meditation on the human condition set in a particular environment and based on particular characters who serve the needs of the film maker before they serve the thing we call 'reality'. As with all of Boorman's work, this may prove its weakness if you are ill disposed towards him, but its uncharacteristically conventional narrative is likely to hold the attention of even casual viewers and it is certainly his most watchable film in many years.

Boorman deservedly picked up the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998 and while Oscar recognition is unlikely, The General is, up with The Butcher Boy, among the best films made in or about Ireland in the 1990s.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.