God help them

Ford and Pitt shoot blanks in the dull and ham-fisted The Devil's Own

In The Devil's Own, Brad Pitt plays Frankie McGuire, an Irish Republican Army gunman with 24 kills to his credit--13 British soldiers and 11 police officers. After a bloody firefight in Belfast, he escapes to New York, where, helped by a pro-IRA judge (George Hearn), he is placed in the home of a veteran New York cop, Tom O'Meara (Harrison Ford), who knows nothing of his background. Using the alias Rory Devaney, Frankie intends to secure a cache of Stinger missiles from an arms-dealing saloon keeper (Treat Williams) and sail them back across the ocean to Ireland.

Do you need to be told that things go awry? More than halfway through the movie, Rory, in fatalistic tones, tells Tom that what we're witnessing is "not an American story, it's an Irish story." Actually, it's a Hollywood story. As a boy, Rory witnessed his father being gunned down by British soldiers at the dinner table--it's the film's opening scene--and Tom represents the father he lost. They bond, they do guy things like shoot pool, and Tom's pretty wife (Margaret Colin) and three daughters make him feel like family.

But Rory is an IRA soldier with 24 notches, and Tom is a do-gooder cop who has fired his gun four times in 23 years--and never killed anybody. Clearly, a reckoning is in the works.

We're cued to tick off the ironies. Rory and Tom are both men of strong principle who find themselves in moral opposition. One professes to use violence to achieve peace; the other is a peace officer who avoids violence. Given different circumstances, these two could easily swap positions. Both carry the blood of the Irish, don'tcha know? When they're together, you expect to hear pennywhistles. (Actually, I think we do hear pennywhistles.)

I suppose we should be thankful The Devil's Own isn't even more schematic. Instead of being Irish-American, Tom could have been English, turning the movie into a paean for brotherhood. It sort of is anyway. Director Alan Pakula and his screenwriters (David Aaron Cohen, Vincent Patrick, Kevin Jarre) are careful not to let things get too "political." They don't make a case for Rory's terrorism except as a kind of roundabout retribution for the murder of his father. We also get no particular sense of Tom's politics, except that he's a humane kind of guy. In the movie's most implausible sequence, Tom and his quick-draw partner, Eddie (Ruben Blades), run down an escaping thief in the streets only to discover that the culprit--a grown man--made off with some condoms because he was too embarrassed to pay for them. Tom lets him go with a fatherly warning. There's a lesson here: Practice safe sex, and you won't get cuffed.

Even though The Devil's Own reportedly cost close to $100 million, it comes across as a sleek, medium-grade character study occasionally punctuated by gunfire. If this is what $100 million buys these days, can $200-million movies be very far off? I'm not arguing that the filmmakers should have inserted a scene in which the IRA blows up the Empire State Building--though that might have livened things up. It's just that with no expensive fireworks to distract us, we're forced to confront the Rory-Tom bond-athon, which is pretty dull stuff.

Did the filmmakers think that bringing Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford together would create the bonding thing all by itself? Sometimes movie stars can supply their own chemistry, but these two don't seem terribly interested in forming a partnership. Pitt isn't bad here when he's swashbuckling or acting moody; he even manages a creditable Belfast accent. But he's made to seem a full grade too tony--when he's portside on his sailboat, he has the wind-whipped glamorousness of a model for a fancy men's cologne. Introducing a new fragrance from Calvin Klein--Terrorist.

Rory doesn't match up with Tom, who seems self-absorbed with the pain of being a good samaritan. The role is all too formfitting for Ford, who is clammy with resolution. Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, this actor used to have a spiritedness, a drive, some humor. But for almost a decade now, Ford has been making a career out of playing stalwart paragons, and he's so blandly righteous he's practically a lummox. You want to put him out of his misery (and ours).

The ambitiousness in The Devil's Own is out of proportion with its achievement. It's trying to work up a connection between the violence in Northern Ireland and the violence in our city streets; it draws a line between the violence of good cops and the violence of righteous terrorists. It's all so diagrammatic. It even saddles Tom with not one but two crises of conscience--not only must he deal with Rory, but he gets to test his rectitude when his partner shoots a suspect in the back and he must decide whether to lie about what happened to the police commission. The Devil's Own would be better if it traveled lighter. There's too much baggage on this carousel.

The Devil's Own.
Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Margaret Colin, Treat Williams, George Hearn. Written by David Aaron Cohen, Vincent Patrick, and Kevin Jarre. Directed by Alan Pakula. Opens Friday.

 
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