Ordinary Decent Criminal (2000)

D: Thaddeus O'Sullivan
S: Kevin Spacey, Linda Fiorentino

The third version of the Martin Cahill story (following Vicious Circle and The General) is an appalling mess, desperate to establish its own identity by upping the pace and changing the names of the characters, but painfully inauthentic in every respect. Headlining Kevin Spacey (American Beauty) and Linda Fiorentino (Dogma) in the leads, scripted by Gerry Stembridge (Guiltrip), and directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan (Nothing Personal), the film must have seemed so attractive on paper that Clarence Pictures and Little Bird couldn't bear to pull the plug even though it was blatantly obvious that it had nowhere to go. Though the lives of American gangsters have inspired many films with different takes on the same characters, John Boorman's account of the life and times of Ireland's best-known criminal of recent years in The General took the classic gangster film structure and added layers of sociological and psychological detail, pretty much telling the story as well as it could be. O'Sullivan's film cannot escape the shadow of its predecessor, and despite the slippery narrative structure, rapid pace and overall dumbing-down of the characters and situation, it fails to achieve any kind of impact.

The story of Cahill's life of crime has been tweaked slightly into a tale of the cost of fame by writer Gerry Stembridge. Instead of a melancholy study of urban crime and the psychology of the criminal fraternity, Ordinary Decent Criminal is a slapstick farce about how a fun-loving criminal achieves fame and notoriety to the cost of his career and friendships. Robbed of its social context and any semblance of believable characterisation, the film concentrates on broad, silly comedy. It borders awkwardly on parody, but really this is more evidence of the panic which has affected the film on the whole. It also tries hard to make Cahill (here called "Michael Lynch" although he lives the same polygamous life, does many of the things Cahill did in real life, and caps his career with the theft of a painting; albeit Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ in this film, which provides an opportunity for some weak thematic rambling about the character's messianic fantasies) and his gang as 'cool' as possible by having them all dressed in black leather, by having none of them particularly violent (one cruel scene stands out and seems incongrous amid this laddish fantasy), and by generally making it seem more of a cartoon than a drama (as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels did). These criminals are more like Sgt. Bilko's outfit than a group of thugs and robbers, and the Gardai are potrayed as even stupider and country-fried than they were in The General. When the few dramatic scenes then come ("Lynch" breaking under pressure, his betrayal by gang members, his brushes with the IRA), they fall completely flat, and the whole film feels unbalanced, inappropriate and embarrassing.

Spacey is a capable performer, but his is badly miscast. He does his best under the circumstances, but his accent is woefully misjudged, his characterisation shallow and the result is fatally artificial. Fiorentino has less screen time as his wife, but is again a little too sophisticated for the character and seems badly out of place. Support from Helen Baxendale (TV's Friends) and Peter Mullan (My Name is Joe), among others, is less intrusive, but with the leads so clearly wrong for the film, the rest falls by the wayside. Compounding their problems are the relentlessly up-beat music score by Damon Albarn (Ravenous) and the rapid editing (matching Stembridge's flash-back/flash-forward script), all of which feels too much like an attempt to distract audiences from the familiarity of the basic story ingredients and dupe them into thinking the film really has a character of its own. If it had, it wouldn't have been so desperate to prove it. It doesn't, and no amount of technique will cover this up.

Ordinary Decent Criminal is a huge disappointment coming, as it does, from filmmakers and performers of this calibre. Stembridge's Guiltrip was one of the most notable Irish feature films of the last decade, as were O'Sullivan's December Bride and Nothing Personal. But this is a frankly dreadful film: difficult to watch, painfully wrongheaded, and obviously in frantic search of a young (possibly American) audience who will not really care how shallow and uninvolving it is and how badly it has misrepresented both the letter and the spirit of the story it pretends not to tell. Irish viewers will want to see it out of curiosity, but unless you felt Waking Ned was the most intelligent and subtle film you've ever seen about the effect of greed on a small community, you're better off sticking with The General.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.