*The Devil’s Own* typifies what’s wrong with so many big budget Hollywood movies these days: too much money, not enough ideas. Just one example: there are a good half dozen scenes shot from a helicopter, for no particular reason, in *The Devil’s Own*. (Do we really need to see a car crossing the entire length of the George Washington Bridge?) It’s not only boring and unimaginative, but every one of those shots cost as much as the entire budget of a good movie like *Sling Blade*.
Like *Sling Blade*, *The Devil’s Own* would like to be a thoughtful study of characters wrestling with morality and violence in extreme situations. It would also like to be an exciting action picture. It is neither.
Frankie Maguire (Brad Pitt) is an IRA gunman. His buddies are all killed in a massive gunfight with the British. So Frankie assumes an alias (Rory Devaney), and heads for Brooklyn, where an IRA sympathiser, who happens to be a judge, installs him in the home of friendly Tom O’Meara (Harrison Ford), a fine Irish Catholic cop. Tom is a loving family man who hates violence, and apparently takes little interest in the Troubles in Ireland.
Frankie’s plan is to buy a bunch of Stinger missiles and transport them back to Ireland in a fishing trawler. This is a ridiculous idea, of course, but no more so than casting Brad Pitt as an Irishman. Pitt struggles mightily with that accent, affecting a largely incoherent mumble that occasionally gets within a few yards of an authentic Belfast brogue: "Ah need tha’ moo-ney Tome." He’s no Streep.
Frankie gets in a wee bit of trouble with an arms dealer (Treat Williams), who then terrorizes Tom and his wife (Margaret Colin). Meanwhile, Tom and his partner Eddie (Ruben Blades) have a falling out after Eddie shoots an unarmed petty thief in the back. A lot of other stuff also happens, including a big confirmation party complete with celtic band, stepdancers and jigs, but none of it has anything to do with the plot. Very little of *The Devil’s Own* has to do with the central plot, in fact. Most of it is filler, incidental incidents that use up time without going anywhere in particular, giving *The Devil’s Own* the characteristic split personality of a movie made by committee (which, with three screenwriters, two high-powered stars and a bigshot director, it was).
*The Devil’s Own* studiously avoids politics. While Frankie is an IRA man, the IRA is only mentioned once in the entire film, likewise the conflict in Ireland. In a prologue, we’re shown why Frankie turned violent: his Da, a simple fisherman, was gunned down at the dinner table, in front of his family, apparently by Protestants. Aside from that formative experience, however, there’s little reason to be sympathetic to Frankie himself -- once he arrives in America, he’s essentially at war with the arms dealer, and all thoughts of the Troubles at home seem far, far away. Aside from a few moments of male bonding with Tom, Frankie is portrayed as basically a cold-blooded killer, vacant, vengeful, and shooting anyone who stands in his way. To understand or care about Frankie, you must understand and care about the very things *The Devil’s Own* wrongheadedly doesn’t want to mention: Catholic-Protestant conflict, centuries of political repression, revolution. Without the socio-political backdrop, the movie has no moral center, and Frankie, who should be likable and heroic, is neither; it’s tantamount to eliminating Jean Valjean’s starving family and making him a bank robber.
While Pitt struggles with the accent, Ford (who is not and never has been an accent actor), brings to his character a genuine sense of goodness, warmth, compassion and crisis. Ford wears the look of a haunted man, a peace-loving man in the midst of violence, deeply troubled by the shooting at work, deeply troubled by Frankie’s betrayal, determined to bring Frankie in alive after the Brits catch up to him. Ford’s Tom is the only thing in this movie that seems real, the only character with any dimension.
*The Devil’s Own* amounts to a whole lot of nothing, a string of disconnected events leading to a ridiculous ending. In a prophetic moment, Frankie tells Tom: "Don’t look for happy endings Tom. It’s not an American story, it’s an Irish one." Alas, *The Devil’s Own* *is* an American story; if it was an Irish one, it probably would have been good.