The General

The General


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Martin Cahill's biopic opens with his death. He's sitting behind the wheel of a car in a leafy middle-class neighbourhood when a youth comes running from nowhere with a pistol in his hand. The boy is out of breath, nervous as a rabbit on a tennis court, the barrel of his gun waving like a flag. He fires in slo-mo. The bullet goes through the windscreen and nails Cahill. Lucky, lucky shot. Luckier than Lee Harvey Oswald.

Cahill was a Dublin criminal who became famous for a series of unexpected, unlikely raids. He cleaned out the city's most prestigious jewellers, even though they had a reputation for being impregnable. He stole priceless old masters from a stately home and hid them in a wood. He collected his dole every week, moved out of a highrise slum into a suburban estate, preferred a Harley Davidson to a posh motor, spent his ill-gottens on racing pigeons and had children with his wife (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and her sister (Angeline Ball).

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John Boorman romanticises the man to such an extent he appears the only decent, honourable human being ("Nobody believes in nothing anymore. Except me"). Even when he breaks into a female witness's bedroom in the middle of the night to intimidate her, he does so with a gentle touch. After crucifying a gang member on a billiard table for alleged theft, he apologises later and escorts him to the hospital. When Gary (Sean McGinley), one of his loyal cohorts, is accused of sexually abusing his teenage daughter Cahill takes matters into his own hands to offset the course of justice.

The police are depicted as nasty and stupid. Inspector Ned Kenny (Jon Voight) is the exception, although his role as nemesis has little dramatic force. Voight looks suitably anguished, downbeat and unHollywood. Why he's there, in a part that any number of Irish actors could have done blindfold, is uncertain. Boorman stuck to a non-star cast, as a matter of principal (or finance). Voight stands out, when he should have slipped in unrecognised, only emphasising the lack of characterisation.

Black-and-white photography makes you miss colour. Its intention is to throw grit on the gloss. Brendan Gleeson does a wonderful job as Cahill, bringing out his humour, sweetness and, to some extent, paranoia. You feel that in real life, he would have been rougher than this. Adrian Dunbar plays Noel, the gang's deputy chief, with his usual ease and charm, despite having nothing much to do. Cahill was assassinated by the IRA. Would they have used a running boy with a handgun? It seems toy-town terrorism: hardly their style. Why not shoot him in the back of the head in a crowd? Or blow up his motor bike? Or splatter his brains across the kitchen wall in front of his family?

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Romanticised biopic of a career criminal.
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Director: John Boorman

Writer: John Boorman

Starring: Brendan Gleeson, Adrian Dunbar, Sean McGinley, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Angeline Ball

Year: 1998

Runtime: 124 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Ireland


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