Pulp o' the Irish

I Went Down is the highest-grossing independent Irish film in history--which, of course, doesn't say much in the States, where we've turned independent filmmaking into a corporate subsidiary and consider Ireland a drab place where either Daniel Day-Lewis or American heartthrobs with poor accents struggle with The Troubles. So the ad copy plunks down movie-smart comparisons involving the Coen brothers and Roddy Doyle, the Irish writer behind the quirky comedies The Snapper and The Van. The point is that the story is comfortably familiar enough for Yanks even though everybody speaks rather funny--and there's no mention of all that depressing Trouble stuff.

I Went Down is an Irish stew of the classic road movie, buddy movie, and clever-talking criminals movie rolled through black-humored Ireland. While filmmakers here have turned similar concoctions into bland formula over the last few years, director Paddy Breathnach and writer Conor McPherson give it a different flavor: Call it Guinness instead of Bud. It's poured much slower, and the character, while strong, isn't for every palate.

Fresh-faced Git (Peter McDonald), just released from an eight-month stint in prison, goes to the pub where his best friend, Anto (David Wilmot), works and finds a bunch of thugs on the verge of hammering Anto's fingers into shepherd's pie. Although Anto started dating Git's girlfriend while he was in the joint, Git intervenes, angering local crime boss Tom French (Tony Doyle). French, pissed but impressed with Git, threatens to hold Anto hostage unless Git locates Frank Grogan (Peter Caffrey) and the 25,000 pounds Grogan owes French. To oversee Git, French sends along Bunny (Brendan Gleeson), a hood best known for once cramming his own grandfather into a garbage bin during an argument.

From the get-go, the impassive youth, Git, and the burly, talkative goon, Bunny, are the obvious mismatched pair destined to film buddy-hood. But as they wind through Ireland's desolate towns, hard flatlands, and decaying bogs, the characters reveal their idiosyncrasies and human warmth in, for the most part, unexpected ways.

Most notable is Gleeson, who has the toughest job. As Bunny, the lambchopped hard-ass who is more of a teddy bear than he lets on and isn't as smart as he thinks he is, Gleeson delivers a character-type with genuine character. He's an ace at stealing cars, but can't crack a gas tank. He teaches Git how to fire a gun and then charges him for every bullet he fires, even when Git is shooting to save Bunny's hide. He reads pulp Westerns and can wander from a harshly practical to a weepy romantic view of his hoodlum life once he gets enough stout in his gullet. Ultimately, he longs to get out from under French and reconcile his family life. All of it--especially the last--could have easily backfired into gimmickry, but with Gleeson it booms.

The same goes for the dialogue. In a genre padded by wiseacres, I Went Down's characters come through hilariously raw but reasonable, never forced. The nonstop babbling Frank Grogan, who at times runs the risk of turning into an Irish Joe Pesci trapped in a Lethal Weapon movie, blasts: "Did you ever make love to a gangster's wife? Jesus, you can't really enjoy yourself...She'll do anything to you...anything...But it's like making love with the angel of fucking death on your shoulder." Or there's Tom French, who berates Git after he takes it to one of his hooligans: "He's lost the eye. You destroyed his face! What kind of horrible, ugly, desperate bitch is he gonna end up with? He'll be lucky if some Arab lets him finger his dog's arse for a fiver."

The plot ambles slowly, but with a fair share of kick-starts to pull you through the story's genial lying, grifting, hot-wiring, kidnapping, counterfeiting, double-crossing, and double-talking.

In the end, though, the filmmakers seem to know good and well that they are traveling some well-trodden roads. The film is episodic, with each chapter getting a placard that describes the forthcoming action. "A shootout and a chase with more shooting" reads one before we're given just that. While this sense of self-awareness doesn't deliver a movie like Pulp Fiction, where hip, witty gangsters can tell you how the French say Big Mac with cheese, I Went Down shows you how the Irish say pulp fiction. It ain't great literature, but damn if the Irish don't spin a pleasant-enough yarn without any Troubles at all.

I Went Down.
Directed by Paddy Breathnach. Written by Conor McPherson. Starring Brendan Gleeson, Peter McDonald, Tony Doyle, and Peter Caffrey. Now playing.


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