When the Sky Falls
directed by John Mackenzie
(Icon, 2000)

The camera sweeps along the craggy Irish coast, past an old lighthouse and down to the sea. It comes up in Dublin, but not the Dublin of Riverdance and travel posters. This is the Dublin of needles and spoons, of emaciated youths and burned-out cars. And the long somber chords and syncopated drums that rise behind the images tell us someone is in deep trouble. And indeed, she is.

Sinead Hamilton (Joan Allen) is a crime reporter for the Sunday Globe. She's brought in page-one stories no one ever's cracked before by going out onto the streets to talk to the criminals themselves, even when it means risking her life.

Of those criminals, one -- Dave Hackett (Gerard Flynn) -- is about to raise the ante for Hamilton. Just out of jail, he's ready to take back the reins of his drug empire, which is fine with drug thugs Mickey O'Fagan and Tattoo (Jimmy Smallhorne and Garvin Kelty), but it doesn't sit well with Detective Sgt. Mackey (Patrick Bergin).

Mackey, it seems, is a bit miffed that Hackett has done less time in jail than it took to put him there. So he decides to get the goods on Hackett -- enough to put him away for good, even if he has to plant the goods himself.

All this would seem to make When the Sky Falls a real Hollywood potboiler, if it weren't for the fact that it's based on the life of award-winning Dublin crime reporter Veronica Guerin. Guerin, who died in '96, gained a reputation for going where no crime reporter had gone before, only to pay a very hefty price for it.

Sky follows Hamilton (a.k.a. Guerin) and Mackey through the seedy Irish underworld, a vicious, hateful bunch that makes the Corleone crew look like a children's theater group. It's not an easy trip for Hamilton or for viewers. It's War and Peace -- with very little peace -- in 107 minutes.

In fact, director John Mackenzie covers so much ground so fast, especially in the first five minutes, that it's hard to tell who's who and what's what. And the Irish accents -- especially Smallhorne's -- are thicker than the local stout. It's that rare film that makes you wish for subtitles.

Then, too, there's the ever-present violence, some of it -- especially a rave-club beating -- more graphic than it has to be. And the sweeping camerawork and occasionally overactive musical score sometimes make Sky look like some kind of Celtic Miami Vice.

But what surfaces as the story and the score settle down is a real-life journey through a modern-day heart of darkness, made by real people with real dilemmas, knowing they're betting their lives, and the lives of their families. This is no mind candy; this is raw meat, with the blood still oozing out of it. There's very little humor to ease the tension; the triumphs are few, the paybacks truly hell.

It's not the easiest film you'll ever watch, but it's well worth the effort. And it will make you wish there were more films like When the Sky Falls, and more reporters like Veronica Guerin.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]
Rambles: 14 September 2002

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