Patriot games

The Devil's Own Alan J Pakula (15)
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The Independent Culture
When Rory Devaney (Brad Pitt) from Northern Ireland sits down for dinner on his first night in America, a dish of corned beef and cabbage is set before him. He asks what it is and his hostess is crest-fallen - she thought it was the staple food where he is from. The O'Meara family, headed by Tom (Harrison Ford), is Irish / American but they have a generalised sympathy for the old country rather than any great knowledge.

They take Rory in on the recommendation of a judge who knows perfectly well that Rory isn't his real name, and that he has come to the US to buy missiles for the armed struggle in Northern Ireland.

In its basic set up, The Devil's Own seems to have a clear enough political agenda: to explain to unfanatical Irish Americans that they don't know enough about the Troubles to avoid being manipulated. In other words, a contribution to Noraid - the agency which campaigns so successfully in the US for the Republican course - may be a contribution to, well, the devil's own (a title that never comes into focus.)

On the other hand, the film-makers (Alan J Pakula directing a script from a story by Kevin Jarre), don't have a very sophisticated sense of Ireland either: the composer James Horner has been required to put Celtic pipes on the soundtrack at any pretext.

The film develops a sustained contrast between Rory and Tom and a charactural one between Northern Ireland and New York. All we see of Ireland is violence: before the credits, Rory's father being killed in front of his eyes for being a "Republican sympathiser" when Rory was eight; after the credits, a pitched battle in Belfast, in which 13 soldiers and 11 police officers are killed before Rory melts away into a providential overgrown garden.

New York, meanwhile, is a city of petty crime and humane law enforcement. Tom plays a paternal role on the beat, and hasn't shot anyone in 23 years. The first bit of policing we see is the chase of a thief who has run from the scene. When the perp reaches Central Park, Tom takes a taxi to intercept him on the other side, but he is not so much aggressive as exasperated. "Don't you know not to run from the police?" he asks his captive. "That's how you get shot."

The tenderness of his approach is vindicated when it turns out that "the thief" has simply pocketed a packet of condoms he was too embarrassed to pay for.

Another call-out, to a scene of domestic violence, concerns a more drastic breach of the peace - Tom and his Hispanic partner Eddie (Ruben Blades) needs to combine calming talk with some brisk intervention to disarm a raging husband. Tom curses guns under his breath - the guns that turn a domestic squabble into something potentially fatal. The film isn't taking a hard line on gun control or anything silly like that, although we see in a later sequence how even finding a gun in the course of a petty crime can turn pilfering into tragedy.

The implication is more that the whole Irish situation is, in effect, a domestic dispute, which third parties should not make worse by supplying with arms.

Rory is charmed by the friendliness and peace of Tom's neighbourhood and the warmth of his family. Tom, for his part, bonds somewhat with Rory, more or less on the basis of his first speech to him: "It's good to have somebody around here that pees standing up." Putting it slightly more stutteringly, Tom, as a father of daughters, establishes an almost paternal rapport with the younger man. Even when Rory's identity is revealed and Tom sets out to bring him in, his interest is still justice rather than revenge for the danger to which his family has been exposed.

He doesn't trust anyone else not to kill Rory - fair enough with a silvery SAS chief called Harry Sloan planning to use "any means necessary to bring closure to this issue".

Even when there is a gun in his hand, the gruff endearment "son" is still on his lips. The contrast between Tom's orgies of consciousness when his partner makes a mistake and Rory's amorality could hardly be clearer. Rory starts the film uttering the most bankrupt slogans imaginable: "If we could take them out, they would have to listen," for instance, where "take out" means destroy rather than go to a restaurant with.

Later he becomes more sympathetic while romancing lovely Megan (Natascha McElhone) and even admits to having some sleepless nights from a sense of guilt.

Brad Pitt, though not quite yet a walking masterclass of the actor's craft, has come a fair way since his "pretty boy" beginnings and gives Rory some needed likeability.

Alan J Pakula was once a specialist in attention and disquiet, and early films such as The Parallax View have worn well. These days he is a rather bland director, as The Devil's Own goes to show. There is one scene that would have some suspense value, if written differently. Tom is beginning to suspect that Rory is not what he seems when he returns to retrieve the money he has stashed in the basement. He needs to ransom his pal Sean, who has been abducted by a double-crossing arms' dealer. This could be a strong sequence, with audience loyalties divided in the classic manner between the protagonists, since Rory's immediate priority is to save a life.

Instead, the writers, David Aaron Cohen, Vincent Patrick and Kevin Jarre, chose to have Tom find the money, so the men can wrangle. ("Did you bring this into my house?" and so on). Rory gets tears in his eyes and tells Tom he is a good man. They are normal people in an abnormal situation.

Later on, when Tom is tracking Rory down, he talks to Megan about what a man has got to do: "I understand why he is doing what he is doing. If I had had to endure what he has had to endure ... but I'm going to bring him in."

And Megan sees reason. If only people would talk to each other. It's good to talk. It's this reliance on dialogue - not in the movie sense of the word, but in its political meaning - that makes The Devil's Own such a half-hearted piece of work, and gives the lie to Rory's little speech: "Don't look for happy endings. This isn't an American story, it's an Irish one"

On release from tomorrow

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