Boondock Saints (1999)

Willem Dafoe has some words for the man who made this movie. "Boondock Saints."

Written and directed by Troy Duffy. Produced by Chris Brinker, Elie Samaha, Lloyd Segan. Music by Jeff Danna. Photographed by Adam Kane. Edited by Bill DeRonde. Production designed by Robert de Vico. Starring Willem Dafoe, Sean Patrick Flannery, Norman Reedus, David Della Rocco.

Boondock Saints is a waste of film that some have confused with a quality product. It is praised, sure, but in small circles, made up of people who are smarter than this material. In fact, it’s hard to find people who are dumber than this material. The movie is an Irish gangster cult movie that manages to insult the Irish, gangsters, cults, and movies. It also goes out of its way to insult women, Russians, Italians, homosexuals, blacks, basically anyone who is not like its two heroes, a pair of good old lads who are as violent, narcissistic and ugly as they are dull. Watching this movie is like watching paint dry while sitting next to an old classmate who never left high school. It’s not just boring, it’s sad and depressing.

The movie is a straight-up endorsement of vigilante justice, in a manner that would shame Death Wish, and Death Wish is a movie without shame. It stars Sean Patrick Flannery and Norman Reedus as Irish boys who kill mobsters. Despite the fact that they show no behavior that indicates they even care what happens to people who are not them, the boys are lauded by the commoners as folk heroes known as the Boondock Saints. Why? The boys are always shown taking out high-level operators and not the street toughs who you would assume the common people would have more enmity for. The movie is absolutely pro-vigilante, so much so that over the course of the film others are attracted to the cause. But then we pause at the very end for man on the street interviews where the morality of the boys can be debated, since we certainly can’t have that discussion dramatized in the actual movie. That would be uncool.

The movie’s two central characters are obviously students of the school of cool, which teaches that it doesn’t matter what happens in a story, as long as everyone looks awesome doing it. They’re alcoholic. They chain-smoke as if it’s going out of fashion (and what do you know, it is). They have nasty tattoos and nastier dispositions. They go to church every Sunday, although I think their actual grasp of theology is shaky. They say prayers before they carry out their assassinations, and they see themselves as doing God’s work by taking out the garbage. All of these traits have been added (either by the boys themselves or by a desperate screenwriter) to provide “color.” They’re not signs for who these people are, because there’s nothing underneath. They’re just two-bit losers with pistols. I’m not bad-mouthing the school of cool; it did give us James Bond, after all. But mister, we are a long way from James Bond.

The boys are not likeable, not in any way. They’re repulsive and disgusting. They also bring nothing to the table, and that’s the fatal issue. It’s perhaps asking too much for characters in a gangster movie to have actions that we agree with 100%. But I don’t think it’s asking too much for them to be interesting, or funny, or charming, or entertaining, or anything other than stupid enablers for a film’s obsession with violence. It’s been done before. See The Godfather. Or Goodfellas. Or The Sopranos. Or American Gangster. Or see any other successful piece of entertainment that deals with criminals, and note how care is taken to underline certain aspects of their personalities, so that we register nobility, honor, and integrity. Not here: these boys are witless monsters, and the fact that their victims are also monsters does not really sway our sympathies.  We stand outside and regard everyone with disdain.

The movie, of course, loves them. It vaunts their actions as God’s work, and their every word as The Truth. Everyone laughs at their jokes, even though nothing they say is funny. Even the constant profanity they deploy is held up for laughs even though…I dunno…I don’t get it. The movie alternates between scenes of the Saints in between attacks with police procedural sequences that slow down and explain the actual attacks themselves, and by my reckoning these scenes exist in the movie to (a) truck in terrible “police” dialogue that wouldn’t distinguish a subpar episode of Criminal Minds and (b) show how clever and—by extension—awesome the boys are at their work.

Oh, I forgot reason C. That’s to introduce Willem Dafoe as an FBI man named Smecker (yes, that is his name) who correctly intuits every action the boys take while visiting the crime scenes, while all the cops sit around like lumps on a log. Dafoe is the movie’s wild card; his sarcasm and over-the-top nature are supposed to be entertaining but they read like “artificial attempt to beef up plot with actor hamming it up.” The whole performance screams “LOVE ME!” and it grows annoying very quickly. He comes to sympathize with the Saints. Why…I’m not sure why. But he does show up in drag at one point, because that’s funny. The character is also gay. Why do I mention that? Because the movie shows us that. And wants us to laugh. Because the fact that he’s gay is funny.

Other things that are funny: Russian mobsters. Oh, my. Not since 80’s action movies have there been so many bad Russian accents in one place, and several scenes seem constructed out of a desire to demonstrate how funny these guys accents are, am I right? Also Italian mobsters trudge through, and we are supposed to laugh at them because they’re so stereotypical, but, I don’t know, I think that speaks more to the filmmakers’ inability to conceive of what the mob is actually like. Martin Scorsese grew up in the same neighborhood as made men. He had first-hand knowledge. Boondock Saints’ knowledge of the mafia seems entirely built out of snippets of other movies. You could elevate that into something else, like Quentin Tarantino (who, let’s face it, the filmmakers are ripping off). But doing so requires skill and humor, which evade the screenplay and direction at every turn.

There’s a bartender in the film who has Tourtettes. His outbursts are deployed for “comic” effect. The movie heaps scorn upon this character by not treating him as an personality, but as a walking joke about those who suffer from Tourettes are hilarious with their unpredictability. It’s appalling. Much like the stutterer who bumbles through Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, the character is in the movie for one reason: because the director thinks the character’s disability is hilarious.

The movie has no parts for women except for a loudmouth lesbian who gets punched in the face by our two “heroes” (because that’s funny) and for two cohorts of the boys’ friend Rocco (David Della Rocco), who are shrill and obnoxious and have the audacity to complain when the boys accidentally kill their cat. Women, huh? Oh, they so don’t understand things, right? Always worrying about their dead cats. Ha ha. Ho ho. The movie’s hatefulness runs so deep that it stops to have one character tell a racist joke about blacks and Hispanics, and there aren’t any blacks or Hispanics even in the movie. Watching this film made me feel unclean, with how insidious its vile messages are.

You might think I’m being unfair by reading this into the film, or that I’m making suppositions that I can’t support by calling into question the filmmakers’ intentions. Not at all. By astonishing good luck, there’s a documentary called Overnight about this film’s very director and writer, Troy Duffy. You know how most making-of documentaries are kind to the personalities they profile? Not this one. Overnight shows Duffy negotiating his deal with Miramax and Harvey Weinstein to make this movie (with Weinstein obviously hoping for another Reservoir Dogs)…and then shows the director’s descent into a narcissistic spiral of ego, alcoholism, entitlement, and unfettered arrogance. The movie makes a case for Duffy as a delusional, self-aggrandizing jackass with a disproportionate amount of love for his own talent, and it uses little more than Duffy’s own words to do it. It’s a fascinating portrait of a sad, sad man, and it comes as no surprise that such a cretin could create a gross movie like this.

Duffy’s greatest achievement is that he still finds a way to make this offensive material boring. The film is by its nature repetitive, as the movie shows the boys planning a hit and then the cops figuring out what happened, over and over again, with nothing leading to anything else. This not only thwarts the tension (hypothetically) but also reveals how arbitrary the whole enterprise is: the movie ends when the filmmakers have decided it’s over. There’s not an ounce of craft anywhere on display. The whole thing is just…unfortunate.

I said before that this movie is popular. Boy, is it. Amongst a certain group of people it’s the kind of movie that gets talked up to death, with those people always stopping to genuflect at its brilliance. To this, I, you can tell, disagree. To all of those who appreciate this movie, I mean this from the bottom of my heart: I don’t get you, and probably never will. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s perfectly okay.

This review will hit on Saint Patrick’s Day weekend. By all means, please watch a different movie about the Irish. Like In The Name Of the Father or Michael Collins. Or even Patriot Games, which is about IRA terrorists, yes, but at least posits that such men are as charismatic and smoldering as Sean Bean. Or Disney’s charming fantasy Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Or maybe watch The Quiet Man, John Ford’s classic starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara. That’s what I was going to do originally, but guess what? The Quiet Man isn’t on Netflix streaming. This movie is, though. Heaven help us.



PREVIOUS TIME PERIOD: 2001 – John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars


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