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.