The General

John Boorman (15)

As everyone in the Republic of Ireland already knows, and everyone over here soon will, was the nickname of Martin Cahill, the larger- than-life Dublin gangster who ran rings round the gardai and the Irish legal system, getting away with a string of ever more audacious heists. It was the IRA who eventually put him out of business in 1994, after he defied them by dealing with the UVF. In time-honoured biopic tradition, John Boorman's film opens with the death of its protagonist. Cahill emerges from his well-appointed suburban home one morning to find that the gardai, who have dogged his every move for months, have called off their surveillance. In a moment of hubris, he thinks he has beaten them. But as he starts his car, a gunman sprints out of the bushes and puts a bullet in his head.

Soberly shot in black and white, in its opening minutes has the dour feel of docudrama. But then Boorman literally reverses our expectations. He shows us the killing again, only this time he rewinds: the shattered car window flies back together, the bullet returns to the barrel and the assassin leaps back into the bushes. Suddenly the film comes alive.

One minute the young Martin (Eamonn Owens from The Butcher Boy) is tearing down back alleys with an armful of stolen vegetables. The next, a dazzling series of whip pans fills in the next two decades, taking us from young Martin to his childhood sweetheart Frances, facing him across the table in the reform-school visiting room, then back to the grown-up Martin (Brendan Gleeson), and across once more to Frances (Maria Doyle Kennedy), who's still dutifully visiting him in prison.

The breathless pace is sustained as Cahill, out of jail, comes home to find a riot in progress. A montage showing him at work burgling houses is given an incongruously dreamy feel: smiling benignly like a guardian angel, he watches over sleeping families as he divests them of their valuables, the shots fading gracefully in and out to the sound of a lilting Van Morrison ballad. The sense of fun and the jaunty jazz score never let up, even as Cahill graduates to bank robbery (providing himself with an unshakeable alibi by making sure he's inside a police station when the crime is actually committed), then to an elaborate raid on a jewellery wholesalers which even the IRA consider impregnable, and finally overreaching himself - to the high-profile theft of a priceless art collection.

As Cahill, Brendan Gleeson can look appropriately menacing with his hunched shoulders, threatening bulk and sleazy combover hairstyle. But he also has a chubby, almost babyish face, a twinkle in his eye and (like the real Cahill, who famously wore a Mickey Mouse T-shirt to court) a child's dress sense.

The means by which he outwits the law have a charming, almost Famous Five amateurishness: he shakes off a police tail by driving round and round the countryside until the petrol runs out, safe in the knowledge that he, unlike his pursuers, has a spare tank in the boot. Like The Butcher Boy (in which Gleeson and his co-star Sean McGinley both had bit parts, alongside Eamonn Owens), lures us into identifying with the boyish exuberance of a happy-go-lucky Irish psychopath. Rather more effectively than Neil Jordan's film, however, it then turns the tables to confront us with the appalling brutality such characters take in their stride. In the same poolhall where he has earlier been seen distributing stolen nappies to needy housewives, Robin Hood-style, Cahill punishes a member of his gang by crucifying him on the baize. The pierced hand is shown in bloody close-up, but Boorman's touch is so sure that he manages to turn the incident into a black joke: deciding that his victim must be innocent if he can endure such suffering without confessing, Cahill pulls out the nails and gives him a friendly pat on the back: "You came through with flying colours."

Boorman might be accused of condoning Cahill's crimes. But it's fairer to say that he simply refuses to judge Cahill. Like Lee Marvin's Walker, the unstoppable avenger who dismantles "The Organisation" in Boorman's classic 1967 thriller Point Blank (due for re-release next month), Cahill is an individualist waging a relentless campaign against any form of authority.

And like Bill, Boorman's nine-year-old alter ego in his wartime memoir Hope and Glory (his last successful film), the director still revels in anyone or anything that injects an element of chaos into the stultifying social order.

Both in its freewheeling energy and its anarchic sympathies, never for a moment feels like the work of a 65-year-old.

This is Boorman's most exciting work since his backwoods nightmare Deliverance, a quarter of a century ago. (And, as if to mark the occasion, he has signed up that film's star, Jon Voight, for a brief but very authoritative turn as the policeman who devotes himself to nailing Cahill, at the cost of corrupting himself.) Even in his best films, character study has never been Boorman's strong point: Walker was deliberately a cipher, and the hapless city types of Deliverance were barely more developed. But here he seems fascinated both by Cahill and by the actor who brings him so unforgettably to life, Brendan Gleeson. Like Depardieu, but with even less show, Gleeson manages to be matter-of-fact and charismatic, boorish and charming, and above all intensely real, right down to the dirt under his fingernails.

There's a wry moment towards the end of the film, when Cahill's gang, under pressure from the gardai and the IRA, are starting to desert him. His right-hand man Noel (Adrian Dunbar) comes to tell him that he's confessed to a post-office robbery so he can go into prison "for a rest". The two men embrace awkwardly, before Cahill backs off, protesting "We're not fucking Italians." Thirty years ago, in Point Blank, Boorman's great achievement was to invest a full-blooded American crime movie with an oblique European sensibility. Now he has achieved something even rarer: a full-blooded European crime movie without a hint of American cliche.