The General
directed by John Boorman
(Sony Pictures Classics, 1998)

Martin Cahill was, depending on whom you talk to, a modern-day Robin Hood or Dublin's equivalent of Dillinger -- a thug from the slums or a "general" who made Rommel look like a buck private.

Granted, he stole millions in art and jewels and car-bombed the forensics expert called to testify against him. But he also was a devoted family man who never smoked, drank or cheated on his wife and her sister, both of whom bore him children.

Now you can make up your own minds about Cahill, thanks to writer-director John Boorman's film, The General, which offers a detailed portrait of both Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) and Ned Kinney (Jon Voight), the Irish cop who devoted much of his career to putting Cahill behind bars.

It's at once a bleak and glorious portrait, flashing back briefly to Cahill's early days as a petty thief in Dublin's Hollyfield ghetto, offering a quick glimpse of life under the reform-school priests and shifting quickly to Cahill's one-man campaign to resist government efforts to tear down the tenements he's called home all his life.

But Boorman focuses the bulk of his film on the cat-and-mouse game played by Cahill and Kenny, an honorable man who in some ways both admires and likes Cahill. That makes The General a kind of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid in brogue, with the accent on the brogue, which is often thick with both slang and metaphor.

Gleeson is superb as the sneaker-clad bandit who sought publicity but hid his face, even when there were no cameras around. He offers a finely drawn and consistent portrait of a man who used the police for his own alibi and took legal advice, albeit illegally, from the same judge who was trying to lock him up.

Voight, who made his first big impression on viewers in Boorman's Deliverance, delivers a different kind of performance here. It's intense but restrained; clever, but not half so funny as the unpredictable Gleeson.

Surrounding them is a cast of characters who can out-act most Academy Award-wining leads. Adrian Dunbar, who led the hilarity in Hear My Song, serves as Cahill's trusty left-hand man and spearheads possibly the funniest divvy-up-the-loot sequence ever filmed; Sean McGinley does the best nervous-thief bit since Elisha Cook Jr.; and Angeline Ball is bound to break your heart as Cahill's sister-in-law and mother of his youngest child.

And once again Boorman, with his talent for telling images, captures it all in his own idiosyncratic way. In Excalibur he drenched his sets in sumptuous hues and warm light. In The General he bleeds nearly all the color from the film, leaving a stark gray portrait of Dublin and the cops and criminal element who do battle there.

But ultimately it's character that makes The General stand out, the character of two men locked in a fierce struggle brought to life by two of filmdom's most fearsome actors.

Unlike their more commercially successful competitors, Boorman's films stand the test of time because they plumb the human soul to depths most other filmmakers don't even flirt at. The General is no exception. It's just exceptional.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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