Insomniac Movie Theater: The Boondock Saints

by Trevan McGee on August 18, 2010

in Columns,Insomniac Movie Theater

I open this week’s Insomniac Movie Theater with the following salvo:

To the fans of this movie, not the people who are ambivalent to it, but to the people who can quote the dialogue, the people who proudly sport the Aequitas and Veritas tattoos and long for the day when they can own the matching Colt .45s; to everyone who identified and wanted to emulate the characters in this unintelligent, ham-fisted action farce: Why is this movie worthy of its cult status? I really, truly want to know.

“The Boondock Saints” is a simple story about two Boston brothers who accidentally become holy killing machines, and set out to eliminate the Italian mafia with the help of their idiot friend. It’s a passable premise that could lend itself to action and comedy equally. On paper, it almost sounds like a missing Gene Wilder/Richard Pryor movie from 1989. But in the hands of bartender/writer/director Troy Duffy, “The Boondock Saints” becomes a self-serious diatribe, full of hokey, idiotic mythology and myth-building centered around a vague moral code that is strictly adhered to one minute and quickly cast off in the next.

Take for example, the movie’s opening, where the brothers MacManus, played by Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus show us what they’re all about –– cracking jokes about spousal abuse, hitting women, and being salt of the earth Catholics, as evidenced by their rosaries and dumpy apartment.

The opening is full the kind of overt visual and audio cues that permeate the entirety of “The Boondock Saints.” Swooping aerials of Boston punctuated by fade-to-black transitions, the early morning mass, the characters’ first exchange with their female boss, and the meeting at an Irish bar on St. Patrick’s Day all exist to establish that the brothers are Irish and that the setting is Boston, nothing more. But Duffy handles these scenes with the kind of self-righteous gravitas that send the message that there’s something bigger at play, that what viewers are seeing is important.

It isn’t. Ever.

But that’s how “The Boondock Saints” works as a whole. It’s a lot of sound and fury that signifies nothing.

It’s also worth noting that Duffy’s influences are easily identified, but never fully attributed. Simply put, “The Boondock Saints” couldn’t and wouldn’t exist without the work of Quentin Tarantino and Luc Besson, two directors that made the indie landscape friendlier for foul-mouthed, visceral fair like “The Boondock Saints,” but where the work of those directors contained punchy dialogue and engaging stories to compliment the visual style, “The Boondock Saints” is all style. Here’s a trademark exchange:

It’s like poetry.

But it’s impossible to talk about the movie without mentioning Willem Dafoe. Dafoe has always had a dramatic flair that some directors have wrangled in and others have indulged, but Duffy takes Dafoe’s scene-chewing to a whole other level. As detective Paul Smecker, Dafoe plays his self-loathing gay investigator like an eccentric choir director. Nothing he does in “The Boondock Saints” is believable and because everyone around him acts like his behavior is normal or well-adjusted, the results are often funny.

There are worse movies than “The Boondock Saints” on a production and story level, but when you combine the movie’s plot with Troy Duffy’s haphazard direction, and the legion of misguided, it’s hard to think of one. It wraps a dumb action movie in epic posturing and a flimsy moral code that boils down to, “We can kill people as long as they are bad,” which has been the underlying principle to nearly every action movie ever. But if you throw in some Celtic music, religious imagery, and half-boiled action, suddenly there’s a deeper meaning or thesis at hand. Duffy’s greatest accomplishment is convincing viewers that there is one.

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shelby August 19, 2010 at 8:14 am

Totally agree.

This movie is dumb, dumb, dumb. Unintelligent. Gratuitous. Vacuous.

Must see: the documentary about the making of this film, called “Overnight.” The writer/director guy is such a complete loser/douchebag guy.


2 Nick Spacek August 19, 2010 at 8:27 am

It’s the sort of movie that appeals to guys in their late teens / early twenties. Coincidentally, that’s the age I was one when this movie came out. It’s all flash, with lines that *sound* cool, while contributing little to nothing to the plot. Throw it in with “Blood Guts, Bullets, and Octane” and “Love and a .45″ as movies that are all bang-bang, clever lines, and completely lacking in anything resembling a point.

Now? I watch it and I am EMBARRASSED beyond imagining. Then? I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen – and it was COOL. It just wasn’t good.


3 Abby August 19, 2010 at 8:29 am

Random thought: Do you see any parallels between Duffy and “The Room’s” Tommy Wiseau? I think I can detect a few.


4 Jake August 19, 2010 at 9:17 am

i like this movie & own it on dvd. it’s just one of those bad action movies that you can quote alot. it’s a typical guy’s college movie.


5 Trevan McGee August 19, 2010 at 9:56 am

@Shelby: I own overnight and love it. It’d be great if they did a sequel for Duffy’s follow-up The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day.

@Abby: There are a few parallels with The Room, but ultimately I think the major differences come down to production value and fan response. The Room is a failure on every level –– production, story, performance, everything. But The Boondock Saints has some decent production values. I don’t get Duffy’s love of the fade-to-black transition. It reminds me of Homer Simpson’s love of Star Wipes, but shots are generally constructed with some amount of care and the editing isn’t bad.

But while The Room is loved because of it’s campy, terrible performances and Wiseau’s hilarious dubbing, The Boondock Saints tends to be loved unironically. The thing I mentioned at the beginning about the tattoos and matching guns? I met guys at college who actually did that. There’s a fervent, almost rabid cult following to The Boondock Saints that I just don’t get.

That kinda ties in with @Jake’s comment. While I mentioned people who were ambivalent or not crazy enthused by the movie (a category I think you fall into, Jake), I didn’t do so just to shield myself from the blowback of a broad generalization.

There are people like me who detest the movie, there are people like you who think it’s ironic or just dumb, but enjoyable, and then there are the crazies. I think you and I kind of see the movie as the same thing: It’s a bad, pointless action movie. The difference being that while similar bad action movies like Shoot ‘Em Up or more recently The Expendables are kind of seen and forgotten or picked up at a Best Buy bargain bin, The Boondock Saints has attracted a cult following. I’m puzzled as to why.


6 Eric Melin August 19, 2010 at 10:14 am

2 things I find interesting:

1. Like Trevan mentioned, why does ‘The Boondock Saints’ attract such a rabid cult following? Is it the over-the-top righteousness and “cult of cool” blithe attitude towards violence?

2. Why do people like myself and Trevan and Shelby loathe it so much? It isn’t just a bad movie for me, it’s like Paul Haggis’ “Crash.” Everything about it offends my sensibilities about what makes a good movie and good storytelling. See the “over-the-top righteousness and ‘cult of cool’ blithe attitude towards violence.” At least ‘Shoot Em Up’ knows its a joke. ‘Boondock’ is dead serious and its laughable. When ‘Boondock’ wants you to laugh, I cringe. It seems to me like the entire movie is pandering.



7 Eric Melin August 19, 2010 at 10:16 am

…except Willem Dafoe, who knows EXACTLY the kind of overwrought piece of trash he’s in and is hamming it up beyond belief. Hilarious! It’s almost like the joke’s on Duffy that Dafoe was able to perform his role that way…


8 Jake August 19, 2010 at 10:19 am

Eric, you really think that Boondock is “dead serious?” & I can’t believe you loathe Crash. That was my favorite movie that year.


9 Greg August 19, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Boondock Saints “It’s a bad, pointless action movie.”
Well said.

Crash “Everything about it offends my sensibilities about what makes a good movie and good storytelling.”
Very well said.

The difference to me, is a lot of people haven’t even seen Boondock Saints. The ones who love it–to each his own I guess, I’m just glad I won’t ever to see it again (insomnia is not a current problem of mine). Crash, on the other hand, is known to nearly every casual filmgoer due to award season. I nearly stopped watching to acadamy awards after that travesty. Awful.


10 Eric Melin August 19, 2010 at 12:39 pm

Jake- I saw it twice and wrote a pretty detailed piece about why “Crash” offended me. It’s right here. Here’s a good excerpt that makes my case a little: “a public scolding disguised as entertainment with ‘social value,’ where people don’t behave like actual people, but instead they exist only to prove Haggis’ point.”

What I think it had in common with ‘Boondock’ is a completely overbearing and insistent POV. I hate movies that smash me over the head and both of those films do that in virtually every scene. I do think ‘Boondock’ is dead serious in its intent, even though it has purposefully ‘funny’ moments.

What I’m interested to find out is why this great divide exists. I don’t think you’re wrong for liking ‘Crash,’ but I’m curious as to why it polarizes people so much. I only know why I loathe it!


11 Eric Melin August 19, 2010 at 12:43 pm

As for the documentary, I have seen ‘Overnight.’ Duffy just strikes me as an egoist who loves to play the ‘underdog’ card. He desperately wanted everyone to believe he was making an movie with an authentic voice when its about as full of posturing and as contrived as can be.


12 Trevan McGee August 19, 2010 at 12:58 pm

It’s the whole cult popularity that sticks in my craw. On its own, it’s just a bad movie, but when you add a rabid fanbase, I get furious. It’s not intelligent. There’s no deeper meaning. The movie impales itself on its own self-righteousness and some people just eat it up.

It’s like people who lose their minds over Thomas Kinkade. It’s massed produced crap with no deeper meaning. Quit projecting.


13 John Davis August 19, 2010 at 5:14 pm

I totally agree with you, Melin. Awful movie. One of my friends made me watch this as if it were on a par with The Godfather. I never understood why he loved it so much nor did I ever watch it again. Crash, ugh. Crash offended me too. I think it offended me like Forrest Gump offended John Waters. I absolutely LOATHE that movie. Maybe people love Boondock Saints so much for the very same reasons they love MMA fighting, they think that they, with a little motivation and tragedy in their lives, could be those two idiotic brothers or cage fighters playing out their middle school fantasies in real life.


14 Ryan August 19, 2010 at 11:21 pm

The film has such a cult following because of it’s development. When the movie was shelved it became one of those “must see” films for those in the know. Much like the recent Trick R Treat it was something that only a few people had seen and had only seen through word of mouth. This made the film like it’s own inside joke or a special club. Mostly because it’s so quotable. Then the word got out and the merchandising started mostly because it was so easy. Each line in the movie could go on a t-shirt. It was this underground promotion of the film that makes it such a cult icon more so than the film itself. The people that look for that deeper meaning in the film are missing the point and are like the guys that found the indie band just after they became the popular norm. But hey, if you talk about something enough it’s bound to develop fanatics. Hell, I still see people with the Godsmack sun tattoo.
I also think Duffy knew what kind of movie he was making all along this becomes more apparent in Boondock 2, which in my opinion is a parody of the first film. To say that Willem Dafoe was the only one that knew is a bit misguided. I mean come on Duffy wrote the lines for a gay FBI agent, I cant imagine he didn’t want that played out as over the top as it was. The whole inner meaning came more from the people that are crazed about the film, kind of like Charles Manson and Helter Skelter.

Overall, Boondock is a fun little quote fest if you’re looking for anything more than that out of the film you are just setting yourself up for disappointment or a long line of much needed therapy.


15 Will August 20, 2010 at 3:20 pm

Actually, the reason film got so big wasn’t because it was shelved, it was because it was a blockbuster video choice of the week, which meant that you could rent the Boondock Saints for free with any new release. This caused many people to watch the film and help it become the \cult classic\ it is today. As to my theory why the film is so popular I think it mainly has to do with the fact that many people who like the film are wanna be Irishmen who want to live vicariously through the main characters…it still doesn’t distract from the fact that the movie sucks.


16 alphamonkey August 20, 2010 at 9:01 pm

Let’s not mince words here: Boondock Saints is a film I’ve used as a litmus test since it first came out. Saying you love this movie means that not only do I immediately disqualify your opinion on anything related to cinema from that moment forward, but I’ll be intensely wary of your real-world philosophy and worldview. It’s like the cinematic Ayn Rand. If I catch you reading it in all seriousness after the age of 17, I don’t have to consider you an adult until you prove otherwise.

BS is not only the beneath-the-barrel scrapings of the wave set in motion by Pulp Fiction, it perfectly encapsulates what made that wave so gawd-awful to endure: Where Pulp Fiction took the tropes of crime film and turned them on their head, Boondock Saints embraced the shallow excess and slapped ridiculous on top of it like so much ranch dressing atop the chili-cheese dog of throwaway film.

Even leaving aside the (and I shudder to call it such) film’s war-crime worthy affronts to cinema, the plot is the kind of juvenile power-fantasy revenge trip that makes me (a lifelong comic book reader, no less) cringe with shame for the male gender. Anakin Skywalker would have *LOVED* this movie, and that should tip you off to the notion that the callous immorality and nihilism draped in the robes of justice this film calls a center should be treated with less seriousness than the average episode of Ow! My Balls!

Seriously…just a shitty, shitty, shitty movie.


17 ben grimes September 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm

if you have seen the documentary about it, then you know this is the worst insult i can deliver right now: the boondock saints seems like the kind of movie that Troy Duffy would write and direct.


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