I Went Down (1997)

D: Paddy Breathnach
S: Brendan Gleeson, Peter MacDonald, Peter Caffrey, Tony Doyle.

I Went Down is an Irish Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting. Let me say that again. I Went Down is an Irish Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting. Thus it has not the budget nor the classical Hollywood background to emulate the former's wit and character, nor the genuine fly-by-the-pants brashness to capture the latter's casually hilarious terror.

Much has been made of it in this country, but that is unsurprising. It has been one of the most heavily hyped Irish films of the last half century, certainly on this scale of production. Written by playwright Conor McPherson, the script is on sale in most Irish bookshops for reasons best known to the publishers. Posters are seen on ordinary bus stops (unheard of for an ordinary Irish film). Radio stations are plugging it shamelessly and reviews in the Irish media have been ecstatic. It seems as if this is the hottest film to come out of Ireland since, oh Pulp Fiction came out of Hollywood or Trainspotting came out of Scotland.

In their eagerness to liken their project to titles such as these, and to both utilise and explode conventions of Hollywood gangster films, the makers of this movie seem to have been far too pleased with themselves to realise that while it comes closer than any other Irish film of this type has done to achieving its aims, it is nowhere near worth that kind of attention.

It is primarily a road movie following the adventures of two contrasting (ho hum) and at least partly inept (chuckle chuckle) Irish hoods on a trip from Dublin to Cork to settle an old score between two aging gangsters. On the way they encounter the usual problems of the genre and meet them with a mixture of the standard cliches and some Irish-themed profanity. There is even a moral quagmire or two (partly set in a bog, no less), and a Once Upon a Time in the West climax which finally tells all.

It comes very close to working. It is fresh enough and even occasionally funny enough to hold your attention as the story trundles towards its inevitable finale where poetic justice finally punishes the guilty and protects the innocent. The setting is relatively different for casual audiences (though familiar to Irish ones) and the cast in general are head and shoulders above the lines they're speaking.

But for all its huffing and puffing, I Went Down has no real wit beyond the obvious sexual innuendo exemplified by the word play in its title. The situations are at best familiar and at worst too convenient to be involving, and the script is simply not good enough to transcend this. The characters respond in predictable ways, and despite the best efforts of all concerned, are never really credible or sympathetic. Peter MacDonald (who bears an often uncanny resemblance to Nicholas Lindhurst) works hard to earn our respect as Git, the ex-con who finds himself indebted to ruthless loan shark Tom French (Tony Doyle) after defending a brainless schoolmate from some of French's heavies in a pub. He also plays well beside Brendan Gleeson, as the fearsome but dim and ultimately fairly gentle strongarm, and their scenes with Peter Caffrey as the rival gangster they're bringing back to their boss under duress have some moments of interest, largely due to the performances of the actors. But though we become attached enough to these two characters in the course of their journey, we don't really feel any great sense of hope or fear when they are confronted by armed felons at the climax simply because we know that McPherson has put such effort into making them lovable, he's not likely to kill them off.

The film is too simplistic and obvious to pull the rug from under your feet, and never moves beyond the fundamentals of plot and character to get into the kind of real drama evinced in Trainspotting or the sly tongue-in-cheek postmodernism of Pulp Fiction, though it dances on the edge of both quite deliberately. The result is a film which is satisfying enough on the most basic level, though your tolerance for it may depend on just how many laddish sex jokes and bursts of flustered profanity you can take. But it never really draws you in, and it is ultimately as self-obsessed and introverted as the leagues of low-budget Irish shorts and features which preceded it and from which it attempts to make a spiritual break. Its desperate attempts to borrow from Hollywood but retain a respectable distance from the classical screenplay reek of artistic/national pride, or an assumption that it is somehow 'better' than the films it apes. The result is not quite well done enough to work properly and not really all that interesting beyond the obvious, fun though it can be in spots.

It is certainly far better than the last Irish gangster film, the thoroughly awful The Courier,but that is not exactly praise. It is also refreshing to see a general absence of mournful Irish colleens staring moodily across the barren landscape contemplating motherhood and nationhood, or angry old men spitting at the advance of modernity. On a deeper level, the film does attempt to advance the representation of Ireland to a level where further development may be possible. But it can't quite escape the inevitable navel-gazing, and its themes of the role of the past in the present and the moral choices of the apparently amoral are easily transferable to any number of Irish films. It's also not nearly as much fun as it evidently tries to be; just a tad too moody and meaningful for a proper sense of entertainment value which it tries to compensate for with dirty jokes and a sex scene. A balanced tone is something which still eludes the majority of Irish films, especially those which attempt the tightrope walk which I Went Down bravely embarks upon.

In conclusion, it's a start. It is something to note and perhaps applaud politely, but certainly nothing to go crazy about. But it is interesting to see that the hype appears to have paid off at the box-office, and Irish audiences have been flocking to it (relative to other Irish films, that is). I suppose even a faint breath of fresh air is better than total stagnation. But we've yet to open the window fully. I Went Down may not really make it big beyond these shores, but it is good that it has at least tried to do what it has done, which is to address the Irish audience on terms as close to international as possible. One day, perhaps, the talent involved will come up with something better, but there is such a sense of smug self-satisfaction evident from the film's marketing and publicity interviews that one senses they might not.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1997.