In Theaters: 50 Dead Men Walking

Movieline Score:

As the bloody sectarian horror show of Northern Ireland in the 20th century has tapered off in the headlines, so has much of its currency in the movies. A few Irish Republican Army gems peek out from time to time (recent Cannes award-winners The Wind That Shakes the Barley and Hunger come to mind), but on the whole, the subject has become almost as quaint as the townships where so many of its earlier films unfolded. Which makes 50 Dead Men Walking both the last of a dying breed and a rejuvenating marvel of sorts: Quintessential IRA grit and exploitation cinema balled up in one fierce package.

Not that writer-director Kari Skogland will take much consolation in having rebranded Ireland's border civil war of the 1980s as B-movie fodder for the '00s -- but she should. Dead Men is a gripping if overextended glimpse into the double life of informant Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess), a Belfast hood whose nationalist loyalties earn him the near-instant respect of IRA leaders in his neighborhood. Yet their tactics revolt him, and the cumulative impact of kneecappings, car bombs, torture and assassinations leads Martin straight into the equally covetous arms of Unionist detective Fergus (Ben Kingsley, in a wig as bad as any IRA killing machine).

Sturgess has been The Next Big Thing for about three years now, and he legitimately earns that distinction here: All crazy eyes and sneering charm, with a struggling mustache as repellent as it is sincere, he's more New Wave anti-hero than kitchen-sink desperado. In any case, he boasts virtually all of the film's dramatic chops while Kingsley pontificates ("The price of a conscience is death. None of us can afford it") and poor Kevin Zegers can only seethe and writhe in his pal's lengthening crime-world shadow. Martin's girlfriend (Natalie Press) offers the requisite reminders that he's got a family to think of, and even Rose McGowan appears as the IRA Mata Hari in whose detail the fast-rising golden boy finds work. So much drama, yet none of their inner lives can be heard over the racket of Martin's own, a bipolar freakout of glamour and desperation generally scored to the loudest rock anthems Skogland can get the rights to.

The Canadian filmmaker is clearly transfixed by the mythology, romance and brutality of the period, some of whose greatest stories to date have emerged from the leery, imaginative witness of Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) and Steve McQueen (Hunger) -- directors working on political themes from the inside out. Paul Greengrass's Bloody Sunday and Ken Loach's Barley feasted on conflict from the outside in, thrusting the consumption of helpless families and communities on equally helpless audiences. Through either lack of perspective or an almost spiritual appreciation of Martin's sacrifice (the film's title refers to the rough number of lives his information saved), Skogland attempts both tacks. She fully succeeds at neither, yet affords Sturgess a prime showcase as the honest scoundrel whose child's mind and fraught soul couldn't choose sides if you put a gun to his head.

Believe me, they did, but by then it was too late. You might say the say thing about 50 Dead Men Walking, if not for the central performance that is itself worth saving. End the violence and just let it live.