The Devil’s Own
Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.
Ford evidently had an insistent itch to scratch in respect of the Irish side of his family, as he’d already gone there with Patriot Games half a decade earlier (you know, the one where Jack Ryan kills some terrorists while on vacation, as you do, and the IRA, in typical Tinseltown fashion, appear as a fictional “splinter cell”, meaning the makers can do as they please without causing offence – Clancy used actual splinter group the ULA – or claiming not to. The Hunt for Red October director John McTiernan conspicuously passed on the project). That movie’s IRA are a thoroughly decent bunch, but for the rogue element. The choice of playing Ryan, on Ford’s part, was the beginning of the end, playing it safe in a manner that would characterise his subsequent career and gradual slide in status, however many fortuitous interventions would keep his ailing star in the running (which were, essentially, The Fugitive, Airforce One and Indy IV).
But it was Brad, with a hankering for Kevin Jarre’s screenplay, who was responsible for bringing Ford to The Devil’s Own and agreeing to what was very much a supporting role at that point. And not your typically upright, morally searching (read: Ford looking constipated) Harrison part. Jarre wasn’t having great luck in Hollywood, most recently having been thrown off Tombstone as a director and having twenty pages of script excised by Kurt Russell to bring it into manageable shape. Whole battalions of writers would eventually have sight of this one (Terry George, Robert Mark Kamen David Aaron Cohen and Vincent Patrick among them). As Pitt opined at the time “We had no script. Well, we had a great script but it got tossed for various reasons”.
Let’s face it, though, no Hollywood star is approaching such subject matter with anything other than romantic notions, no matter how gritty or “real” they’re ostensibly attempting to make things. As Entertainment Weekly told it, “Jarre’s Rory Devaney isn’t the terrorist with a heart of gold he became. On the run from his past, he steals money from a crack house, guns down its inhabitants, goes on a nightclub crawl, and snorts coke. He was “this kind of existential antihero,” says Vincent Patrick (The Pope of Greenwich Village), one of five writers involved in what became an exhaustive overhaul”.
Pitt was essentially just the latest movie star – the previous incumbent being Mickey Rourke – nursing a flirtation with the violence of the Emerald Isle. And with the Rourke one, director Mike Hodges most certainly didn’t like what was done to A Prayer for the Dying. More directly Hollywood, Patriot Games was saddled with reshoots, while Blown Away didn’t (blow anyone away). The Jackal was a remake too far. Unless you were Jim Sheridan or Neil Jordan, you were likely on a hiding to nothing. When Harrison came in, allocated a $20m payday, it meant $32m was being spent on the stars. On the plus side, Ford suggested Alan J Pakula, who brought Gordon Willis with him as his DP. But if his previous collaboration with Ford played to the director’s strengths, his more recent movies had been less than satisfying, even when they proved hits (The Pelican Brief).
Ford wanted changes, then Brad wanted changes in response to Ford’s changes. Brad now says he likes the movie, calling it “a good schooling”. At the time, he was much less diplomatic (Ford was unimpressed with his younger co-star’s forthrightness): “To have to make something up as you go along — Jesus, what pressure. It was ridiculous…I don’t know why anyone would want to continue making that movie. We had nothing. The movie was the complete victim of this drowning studio head [Mark Canton] who said, ‘I don’t care. We’re making it. I don’t care what you have. Shoot something.’ I tried to [quit] when there was a week before shooting and we had 20 pages of dogshit. And this script that I had loved was gone”.
In 2011, he claimed “Literally, the script got thrown out… And I decided to stay”. Essentially, that he had a choice in the matter; others have suggested he was threatened with a lawsuit unless he remained on the project. Still, “the most irresponsible bit of film making – if you can even call it that – that I’ve ever seen” allowed him to go full Meryl with his “first attempt at an accent that was truly foreign to me” (next stop the Hima-liars, and from thence, Snatch). The accent got him some stick, and there’s a self-conscious softness to his delivery at times (not so far from Meet Joe Black, where he seems to be swallowing his words in certain scenes) that rather detracts from the hard-bitten freedom fighter he’s supposed to be inhabiting.
The movie is set up with “valid motivation!” for Brad’s Frankie McGuire being a terrorist (dad was killed in front of him when he was eight for being a sympathiser). On top of which, Simon Jones is wheeled on as a truly loathsome representative of the Crown; if you’ve always wanted to see Arthur Dent shoot an unarmed man in the head, this is the movie for you. Frankie is subsequently dispatched on a mission to New York to buy some Stinger missiles. I know, this had me scratching my head. Typical bloody Hollywood. Why not grab a nuke while you’re at it? But it seems the idea was based on a plot the FBI foiled (makes a change if so, usually they’re the ones doing the instigating and entrapping).
Frankie finds himself lodging with one of NYPD’s finest (Ford’s unsuspecting Sergeant Tom O’Meara), on the basis his home will be “the safest place in the city”. This comes at the behest of George Hearn’s sympathiser judge, who is astonishingly lackadaisical about concealing his affiliations, such that he puts up terrorist’s sister Natascha McElhone. There’s a recognisable seed of potential here, then, one that instantly summons Ford’s trailer-made line “Did you bring this into my house?!” It also provides bags of opportunity for Brad to trade on his golden boy looks as the kids of the household (including a young Julia Stiles) swoon over fancy man bomb boy.
But with the shift in focus to Tom, much of the proceedings are soon devoted to Ford’s moral dilemmas. Partner Ruben Blades shoots a suspect and Tom has to cover for him (“23 years and you never took a bribe” says wife Margaret Colin, who thinks a little thing like scruples shouldn’t stand in hubby’s way; she’s a mere slip of a girl, though, a whole sixteen years younger than Ford, so she has a lot to learn). “We’re in the police business, Eddie. Not the revenge business” maintains Tom, in that patented, indignant way of Ford’s that implies the dog’s been chewing his slippers again. But you see, do you? You see the thematic depth here?
Brad meanwhile is painting a boat (to carry home the Stingers: a grand plan) and wooing McElhone. Occasionally having suggestive conversations with Tom. “If you pick up a gun, sooner or later, someone gets a bullet” he homilises. Brad’s dilemma is that Treat Williams’ arms dealer reveals himself as “a very stupid man” when he demands his payment or else. If this leads to a glamorous shootout, to be sure, where Frankie kills everyone double quick, such episodes do, at least, raise the tempo a notch and so cover for a screenplay generally struggling to maintain genuine tension. Pakula is more than competent handling such material, be it the opening Belfast (that’s Belfast by way of Hollywood) shootout, or the first-rate sequence where Tom and Sheila arrive home to discover masked men are waiting.
To be fair to Brad, he was trying, and he’d mostly gain in understanding of the way things work from the experience. Ford had little excuse, and would only compound his poor choices subsequently, his every decision showing a dearth of balls (his best movie in the next decade up to Indy IV is probably K-19: The Widowmaker, ironically, as it was one of his biggest flops). This would be both Pakula’s and Willis’ last movie, a sadly inauspicious way to go out (Pakula died the following year, Willis retired). On the soundtrack, James Horner’s Oirish pipes warm him up for Titanic six months later, and there’s Dolores on the soundtrack (she, famously, of guns and bombs and bombs and guns).
Fortunately for us all, we have Sir Ken offering his own nostalgic take on the Troubles in cinemas (well, at home, mostly) soon, a prospective awards darling and angling for a similar level of kudos to those reaped by Roma (see the authentically arty digital-looking black and white) and Hope & Glory (war-torn upbringing from a child’s eye view). We’re fortunate Branagh is such a cinematic titan, or there might be a danger Belfast was mawkish slop.
The Devil’s Own winds up ineffectual because it has nothing to say beyond the only thing it can say, which is less actually saying anything and more looking apologetic over developments while wringing its hands uncomfortably. Which is entirely Ford’s thing, so he’s right at home in a dependably middling movie of middling sentiments. At one point, Frankie advises “Don’t look for happy endings, Tom. It’s not an American story. It’s an Irish one”. Actually, it’s neither. It’s a La La land.