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50 Dead Men Walking (2009) ***

August 5, 2009

 

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written by: Kari Skogland

produced by: Kari Skogland, Stepphen Hegyes, Peter La Terriere, Shawn Williamson 

directed by: Kari Skogland

  rated R (for strong brutal violence and torture, language and some sexuality.)

117 minutes

U.S. release date: August, 21, 2009

DVD & Blu-ray release date: December 19, 2009

The first time I came to know anything about the Irish Republican Army (or IRA) was in the early 90’s. Of course, my introduction was through film, as is often the case, and it just so happened to be two films that were a year apart. In 1992, a spoiled assassination attempt by an off-shoot IRA group resulted in an obsessive vendetta against a CIA analyst in “Patriot Games”.  That film had a modern day setting, unlike 1993’s “In the Name of the Father” which followed the true story of Gerry Conlon, who back in the mid 70’s, was wrongfully convicted of IRA terrorist activity while visiting London. Both films depicted the IRA as a radical group of paramilitary, determined to do anything to liberate Ireland from the UK.

In Canadian screenwriter, producer and director, Kari Skogland’s film, we’re given more than one perspective of the IRA, revealing the thin line that is blurred between revolutionary and terrorist. The story, loosely based on the autobiography of the same name by Martin McGartland tells of his undercover activity with the IRA. It shows the brutality toward ‘touts’ (or traitors) to their cause as well as the shameful steps the British police took to get a handle on the IRA’s activity. By the late 1980’s, the long-standing tension between the British and the Irish had culminated in what would be called “The Troubles”, located predominately in Northern Ireland. Which is where we find Martin (Jim Sturgess), a young hustler in Belfast, selling women’s lingerie door to door. His apolitical stance has distanced him from the IRA, yet their activity is ever present.

After witnessing brutality enacted by the IRA toward one of his friends, Martin reluctantly accepts an offer by the British Special Forces to become an undercover informer. He reports to a man named Fergus (Sir Ben Kingsley), who becomes his handler and in time, father figure. There’s no way Martin could have known the type of life-threatening danger he was getting himself into, in fact, it’s never quite clear what his motivations are. He soon becomes a rising asset to both the IRA and the British police, despite the risk to his girlfriend (Natalie Press) and their son.  Martin continued as an agent, gradually realizing he’d be spending the rest of his life paranoid, on the run and  in hiding. It wasn’t all for nothing though. The information Martin provides saves the lives of at least fifty men who would have wound up dead if not for his involvement. 

 

Skogland delivers a crisp thriller that will interest anyone craving action and a  story without neglecting character. She starts out the film with a thoroughly attention-grabing scene with Martin in the late 90’s, leaving you knowing full well that we are about to be his story. Her only weaknesses come when she relies too heavily on similar conventions like montage scenes and adrenalized punk music. It’s not awful, it’s just that we’ve seen this approach countless times. Still, she does not romanticize any of the characters and their storyline at any point, thankfully. The best scenes are the ones where she gives us Sir Ben and Sturgess, as we see the reliance each other has on the other over time. It becomes clear that for these two characters, it becomes more of a necessary relationship. Both are estranged from their own father/son relationship and due to where they are in life, are in need of one. She really allows them to take their time and work off each other well. It becomes clear that they need each other since both of their own father/son relationships are either non-existent or estranged.

I can’t say I really thought much about the talents of Sturgess before this film. Seeing him in “Across the Universe”, he struck me as another up-and-coming pretty boy. I had not seen much of his work since and knew that his performance would really have to sell this small independent film. Here he shows a strong handle on a wide range of emotion while also giving a very physical performance, running all over town and getting beaten to a pulp. What really interested me about the film was the subject matter, and of course, Kingsley but Sturgess’ work is excellent here. Meeting him for a Q&A after the screening, he came across very engaging and involved in his craft. I look forward to going back and seeing his past films as well as his future work. I’m hoping Kingsley’s involvement in this film brings more attention to it.

There was an announcement made before the screening that the film was only being released at this time in Chicago, Boston & New York, for whatever reason. Although independent cinema has reached a broader audience over the years, it’s still a struggle for filmmakers to keep a movie afloat. Here’s one of those films worthy of your time.

 

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