A fast-paced, exciting, if not exactly authentic-feeling IRA drama, Kari Skogland´s Fifty Dead Men Walking is entertaining enough to please mainstream audiences. It´s not the artistic success that was Steve McQueen´s Hunger, but it´s not trying to be, either; it´s more in the realm of the traditional informant thriller, well-executed and rousing in spots, with the pretense of having moral complexity that might do the situation justice.
In 1988, Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess) is hawking stolen clothes door-to-door in Belfast. This is during the height of The Troubles, as the Catholic-Protestant animosity dictates the social layout of Northern Ireland, British troops line the streets, and the Provisional Irish Republican Army escalates the violence. Martin is rather uninvolved in all of this.
His friend Sean (Kevin Zegers), however, is a low-level IRA operative. The Special Branch of British police has been monitoring Sean and Martin on CCTV monitors; an agent named Fengus (Ben Kingsley) has Martin picked up in the hopes of turning him into an informant. Of course, he declines. Later on, Martin witnesses IRA members put bullets into the legs of a kid who was walking around with a tire iron; the kid happened to be the brother of Lara (Natalie Press), a girl Martin has eyes for. Later on, Martin is offered the chance to work for the IRA, becoming a driver for a high-ranking member (Tom Collins).
Now, informing on the IRA is tantamount to signing his own death warrant, and Martin must know this, but he agrees to do it anyway. The decision is never sufficiently explained. He doesn´t seem swayed by the money, he doesn´t seem to care all that much about the kid that was shot. He doesn´t care for the IRA, certainly, but nor does he care for the British forces. But he aids the British over the years, while rising in the ranks of the IRA and starting a family with Lara.
The titular Fifty Dead Men Walking is the estimate of the lives Martin saved over years; Martin gives Fengus information on upcoming IRA actions, and (mostly) British officers are spared. It´s entirely disingenuous. Martin´s actions directly lead to the deaths of IRA members; some killed by British forces, one is accused of being the spy and tortured to death in front of Martin´s eyes. A complex equation is needed to determine the actual number of Martin´s Dead Men Walking, but if we take the (reasonable) stance that his actions helped to fuel the war, that number might turn up negative.
Of course, this isn´t the movie´s fault. I have no doubt that McGartland’s book, also called Fifty Dead Men Walking, painted a different story, but the McGartland here is something of a pathetic character, and the film stops short of turning him into a hero. It leans that way, sure, but even as Fengus credits him with saving fifty lives towards the end, we can´t help but think of the lives that he cost, and everything he lost along the way. McGartland is still living today, the end scrawl tells us, constantly on the move after surviving a 1999 retaliation shooting; he hasn´t seen his family since he went into hiding. He´s also disowned this film adaptation of his novel, calling it “as near to the truth as Earth is to Pluto.” Which is just as well.
It may not be accurate, but Skogland´s film is entirely well-made with one small exception; the action scenes feel haphazard. I´m thinking of one in particular – a chase scene near the beginning of the film. The camera feels artificial, jerking us around left, right, up, down; there´s a sense of rhythm to how a guerilla filmmaker might shoot on the (literal) run, but it feels all wrong when a professional camera crew tries to mimic it.
Sturgess is excellent in the lead; he´s been failed to make much of an impression in other high-profile films, but this is quite clearly his best role to date. Kingsley is fine as Fergus, but he´s not really given enough screentime to work with. Minor complaint: the complete lack of Irish actors among the principal cast, which only adds to the level of in-authenticity.
Surprisingly, this one ain´t too bad. The Saw franchise started off in 2004 with the ingeniously written but poorly directed original; each year hence has seen a financially successful sequel released in time for Halloween. Saw II was the best of a mediocre bunch that has slowly declined in quality until now: Saw VI, directed by the editor of the previous five films, Kevin Greutert, is easily the most entertaining since the second installment.
Admittedly, these sequels have an appealing degree of inventiveness. Most horror sequels give us, plotwise, a rehash of a previous film, or something with only a strained connection to the original. Not these Saw films, which all take place within a matter of weeks (days?), and keep doubling back on themselves, revealing information that sheds new light on events of the previous films. That´s not enough to make a successful film, as the last two entries have proven, but while Saw VI continues in this fashion, it also provides the kind of forward-moving, self-contained story that the franchise has been missing since part III.
Note: there are heavy SPOILERS for events in the previous Saw films (I-V) in the graphs below; skip the rest of the review if you want to see the rest of the franchise before this one (not that I necessarily endorse doing so).
Jigsaw/John Kramer (Tobin Bell) has been dead since part III, but that hasn´t put an end to his Rube Goldberg death devices. Saw VI picks up right where Part V ended, as we learn that Agent Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) has become Jigsaw´s post-mortem accomplice, and he´s framing the deceased Agent Strahm for his actions. Hoffman has two obstacles to overcome in the film: keeping an eye on Agent Erickson (Mark Rolston) and associates, who are investigating the murders and coming closer to identifying Jigsaw´s accomplice(s), and carrying out Jigsaw´s final(?) game.
That game involves William Easton (Peter Outerbridge), head of the insurance company that denied John Kramer´s request for financing an alternative cure for his cancer. Easton, who chose who should be covered by his policies and who shouldn´t based on a formula that identified who was likely to make his company the most money, will now have to choose who lives and dies among his friends and co-workers in a sequence of deadly Jigsaw traps.
It´s executed ham-fistedly, with all the subtlety we´ve come to expect from the Saw franchise, but Saw VI does deserve a fair amount of praise for its message: that insurance providers looking out for corporate good may not make for the best angels of mercy. There´s a delicious irony in watching the Easton character put through the Jigsaw ringer that almost – just almost – provides some fun.
On top of that, Outerbridge gives one of the best performances in the Saw franchise as the cool-headed, faux-friendly Easton. He really seems to be a OK guy, struggling with the day-to-day decisions he has to make, but he represents so much evil; Outerbridge nails the ambiguity that makes this character feel decent and wretched at the same time. And while Mandylor was always incredibly bland as the cop on the case, he fares much better in the villainous role here.
Still, Saw VI can only go so far. It works as effectively as we could expect in gruesome B-movie fashion, but we´ve seen it all before; the series had become tiresome by the fourth installment, and without all that much variety, it´s still in that funk here. The series never really went for scares, but suspense, tension, and dread are all but gone now too.
This is a lighter film, almost humorous at times, and easily the most preposterous of the series (these traps now rely on actions that simply cannot be anticipated). The dark and brooding atmosphere from the previous sequels is mostly gone here, a better development says me, but hardcore fans may be disappointed.
And: 2Bobule (showtimes), a sequel to the popular Czech comedy. You can catch it with English subtitles at Village Cinemas Anděl’s Golde Class.