THE DEVIL'S OWN ** 1/4 (1997)
First, Brad Pitt, as 8-year old Frankie sitting at the dinner table with his loving family, right after grace witnesses a masked man shooting the boy's father dead. Years later, in the early 1990s, there's a battle royal between now grownup Pitt plus other IRA activists -- soldiers or terrorists depending on who is speaking-- and British forces in civvies and uniforms, armored cars, tanks and helicopters. It's kinetic carnage, deja vu but well shot (no pun). Pitt escapes through a back door of the housing area's warren.
Frankie, with almost two dozen killings to his credit, is sent on a mission to the US where a big sum raised by Irish-American IRA sympathizers awaits him. He is to buy missiles and take them back home to blow up British helicopters.
Bearing a counterfeit passport, Frankie lands at the Newark airport and goes on by car through cityscapes. These are cold and dreary compared to the green of Ireland, though the New York skyline impresses the young man.
Posing as "Rory," an immigrant construction worker, Frankie is housed in the home of Irish-American police Sergeant Tom O'Meara (Harrison Ford) who has a pretty wife and three pretty daughters. Ford, 54 when the film was made, may be too long in the tooth for such a young family. That's a minor point. What his Tom is, is a) a model cop; b) a sweet, non-violent family man; c) a pacifist; d) not an IRA lover; e) entirely unsuspecting of "Rory"'s identity; e) as honest as the day is long; f) Harrison Ford who can still be something of an Indiana Jones when duty calls.
Notes. (a) and (b) are also underlined by Tom's nice behavior when after a chase on foot he releases a temporary catch. Also by his disgust at partner-buddy Edwin Diaz (Ruben Blades) for a shooting that was not called for. (e) is partly explained by Mrs. Meara being a working mother, and by the house whose modesty spells Tom's honesty. Had he been a taker of bribes or "mordidas," Mrs. M might have been a full-time mother and the house fancier.
We're not talking out and out cliches here, but the next thing to them. Hollywoodian ideas are floating around: 1) to pair two popular icons, heroes and hearthrobs, one young, one older, thus spanning all male and female audience ages; 2) to have the two men bond, the fatherless terrorist and the son-less cop; 3) to keep Frankie's deception going until the already bonded men have their confrontation. This begins at minute 77 of the film.
What we get is three movies in one, coexisting in discomfort: a thriller, a bond-film (not James) and an anti-violence picture. The latter is rather heavily stressed in a confirmation sequence where the priest asks youths to renounce the Devil. Too pat.
The movie had gotten a negative rap in the press, especially when, while it was shooting, Brad Pitt griped in print about the incoherent, formless script. He then called it "the most irresponsible bit of film making -- if you can even call it that -- that I've ever seen. " Although the PR people played this down, along with the reported bad blood between Pitt and Harrison, the fact remains that the movie was being written and rewritten while it was being shot. This might sometimes be an asset in the hands of certain independent filmmakers but it is seldom a good sign for studio pictures
Ah, Hitchcock. Why is it that on a thousand topics discussed, he regularly comes to mind because of his mastery, and specifically in this case, because he had his films precisely mapped out before the cameras started rolling?
"The Devil's Own" ("own" what?) may have good intentions, may have wished to get into moral and psychological problems. It merely skims them. Its obligatory elements keep it a prisoner of itself. A short list, not in chronological order so as not to give away the plot too much:
1) There are several pretty women around. At least they are natural lookers rather than model-beautiful. 2) There's an awkardly sketched out love affair between Pitt and little-- known Natascha McElhone. Her looks remind me of Meryl Streep's. 3) There is a mano a mano fight, as in typical Westerns. 4) The obligatory villain is Treat Williams, the seller of the missiles. A smoothie, he owns three bars. His villainy is telegraphed. By Irish standards pub owners may be respectable, but by Hollywood standards, bar owners are often fronts for the underworld -- another cliche. 5) Frankie, who had never been out of Ireland, knows from the start his way around New York and vicinity better than residents of 20 years know their way around Kalamazoo. 6) The American shooting scenes (and I mean real firepower) have Pitt most improbably outgun and vanquish the villain and his henchmen. 7) Even more outrageously, when he does this, Pitt is already on the run, has managed to get rid of his handcuffs in a jiffy, to keep an appointment on time and to make a money-bag explode! If America were to import a bunch of Frankies, they could cut down our crime rate 50%. 8) Extreme outrageousness. The Stinger missiles are to go to Ireland on a near-wreck of a tugboat that Sean, Frankie's childhood friend, already in New York, has been somehow fixing. The two fellows continue to scrape, restore and refit it. The boat, the Sean character and the passage of time are not explained. Apparently only the two men will be the boat's crew. With my limited nautical knowledge I can't swear that crossing duo or solo the Atlantic on a tugboat is out of the question, especially after Frankie finds himself Sean-less. Yet my feeling is like what Sam Goldwyn used to say: "This is not only impossible, it cannot be done. "
Does all this amount to a bad movie? Oddly, no--just a forgettable one. Between the charm of Harrison Ford, the appeal (to many) of Brad Pitt, good performances, fine production values and photography, a nice Irish score (but when non-Irishy it gets characterless-generic), a few good scenes and the overall camouflage of defects, this is not a dull, irritating film. But it isn't good either.