Cinema Review: A Good Day to Die Hard

  • DIR: John Moore  WRI Skip Woods   PRO: Alex Young  • DOP: Jonathan Sela • ED: Dan Zimmerman • DES: Daniel T. Dorrance • CAST: Bruce Willis, Jai Courtney, Sebastian Koch, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

The decline of the Die Hard series continues unchecked with this empty cacophonous clanger that is so inert story-wise that no amount of explosions can blow the cobwebs away. In fact, let’s face it – the quality has nose dived since Die Hard with a Vengeance. That smart inventive second sequel proved irrefutably that action films can evolve away from the basic concept of a franchise while retaining real character, wit and heart.

The greatest charge levelled against Len Wiseman’s last pallid instalment was that it didn’t feel like a Die Hard film at all.  Any hope that our own John Moore could arrest that creative slide departs within moments of the start. In fairness to him, the incessant action is handled competently enough but the script can’t find any reason to have action. It just insists it takes place.  All the time. For no reason.

Therefore, the lion’s share of the blame falls on Skip Woods’ horrendously superficial screenplay. The credits haven’t even concluded by the time a tight knot of dread forms as the lazy action failsafe of a coveted ‘file’ is trotted out. In that moment, we know we are simply watching a chase film. There was a time when a chase was just a constituent consequence of story and plot that formed part of a film. Right now, chases are movie length and most of the time to paraphrase Morrissey – we are bored before we even begin. It’s definitely the case here So entire rooms, roads, buildings and city districts will be razed in pursuit of this MacGuffin ‘file’.  It serves only as an excuse for action but it’s a sorry excuse that doesn’t remotely justify or explain the carnage that follows.

Woods seems to have literally lost the plot because no plot exists bar John McClane travels to Moscow to visit his incarcerated son Jack.  Once there, Willis attempts to shake off jet lag by absorbing the full impact of not one but two vehicles in his seemingly crush proof chest. To rouse himself further, he spins a lorry over countless cars before emerging unscathed. All of the shattered glass in just this one sequence prompted a memory of the original Die Hard which brilliantly distinguished McClane as a vulnerable and human hero. The first film showed the damage caused by bare feet walking over broken glass. A simple scene that made us wince in empathy and admiration while making the audience feel genuine pain.

This film is painful too but it’s not the same thing. In this, car windows, chandeliers and glass ceilings exist only to explode or cascade. There is so little at stake that even the characters muse around the midway point that they have nothing at stake in the plot and could easily just leave.  When your ostensible heroes can freely walk away mid-film, something has gone horribly wrong on the screenplay side. Ideally, they should be locked in an inescapable escalating scenario and be compelled to continue.  Woods can’t even equip Willis with any decent quips. Sure, McClane talks away to himself in that established style of the series but now it seems more like the onset of dementia than cool movie patter.  Judging by Woods’ back catalogue which began vacuous with Swordfish and has stayed vacuous through turgid fare like Wolverine and Hitman, he seems chronically incapable of writing a decent line of dialogue. The sloppiness is summed up when Woods misplaces the entire city of Grenoble.

So this film bellows along punctured with predictable outbreaks of inconsequential action. A simple game can offset the boredom – the second Willis walks into any room guess how long it’s going to take before gunfire reduces the set to ribbons. Or predict which surface is going to inexplicably explode first. Throughout, the action is expensive rather than impressive. There is no tension, ingenuity or intelligence to how any fight begins or ends. And just to quench any notion of hope you may have, the middle of each fight is blandly uninspiring too. In fact, those are the worst bits. Where once exposition was skilful in this series, now it amount to characters walking past a swimming pool. Oh, I wonder if that will prove useful. The daftness never gets endearing either but culminates with Willis jumping in one window only to jump back out of it seconds later.

The increasingly convoluted titles are symptomatic of how awkward and forced these sequels have become but I’m honestly a huge fan of the first three films. Die Harder was the runt of the litter when there were only three but with each passing instalment, its’ stock grows. In my favourite sequel Die Hard with a Vengeance,  the action played out across the entire city of New York but still felt tense and important. This film is terse in terms of running time but there’s no tautness at all. Or personality. Wit, charm and heart have left the building and they ain’t coming back at this rate.


James Phelan

15A (see IFCO website for details)

97 mins

A Good Day to Die Hard is released on 15th February 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard – Official Website


Cinema Review: Zero Dark Thirty


DIR:  Kathryn Bigelow  WRI: Mark Boal  DOP Greig Fraser   ED: Dylan Tichenor, William Goldenberg  DES: Jeremy Hindle  CAST: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler

Condensing the ten year manhunt for Osama Bin Laden into movie form is a tough task especially when the ending is already firmly cemented in the public consciousness. The appeal of this film then becomes a procedural study of what information and intelligence we weren’t privy to during a decade where the trail appeared to have gone cold.  The devil is therefore in the detail and the Hurt Locker creative team of Bigelow and screenwriter Boal have rendered a forensic, exhaustive and often exhausting depiction of a murky labyrinthine process.

Aiming for the sort of quasi-documentary feel that infers and evokes an air of convincing verisimilitude, the filmmakers elect to insert a fictional character Maya (Jessica Chastain) as the audience’s guide through the jargon-heavy world of military intelligence. Chastain plays a CIA analyst who latches onto a snippet of intel extracted by extremely dubious means. Her superiors dismiss the value and veracity of the information but Maya is dogged in her pursuit as the quest becomes more personal with every passing year.

The atmosphere of authenticity is enforced by Bigelow’s decision to staff her film with largely unknown faces. At first glance, Chastain seems to breach this self-imposed rule but despite a run of impressive high-profile work, she retains a genuine chameleon quality where she melts into each individual role. It would be perverse if the profile and exposure that accompanies a possible Oscar win robs her of that virtue. In truth, Maya is deliberately one dimensional. Her entire focus and indeed entire being is devoted to the manhunt to the exclusion of any relationships. Thankfully, the characterisation never slips into ‘ice maiden’ caricature as Maya’s coolness is regularly enlivened by humanising outbursts of wit, insolence and office-based graffiti.

The film juxtaposes infamous dates that are seared into the collective memory with lesser known events. In a context where prior knowledge should dilute tension, Bigelow excels at generating it. Her skills are deployed with superb precision in certain sequences especially a misjudged decision to allow an unsearched vehicle onto an army base. The small ominous details are astounding. For instance, a black cat crosses the screen in the foreground as the car approaches. It’s subtle. It might even have been a happy accident for the filmmakers but it’s a potent and insidious portent of impending doom. Another incendiary act of violence literally shatters a moment where the audience foolishly relax in conjunction with the characters onscreen. Naturally, the concluding nocturnal storming of the Bin Laden compound is a technical marvel. For gung-ho members of the audience, this sequence is the entire raison d’etre for the film but it’s telling that this project was apparently greenlit long before those climatic events unfurled in real life.

For all its excellence, the film is far from flawless. Bigelow and Boal strain to keep Maya central to the action in a manner that winds up straining credibility in the end. Her ubiquity begins to approach omnipresence as she is placed at far too many notorious events. The pain is also palpable as you can sense Bigelow’s frustrated desire to place Maya on the marine choppers on the actual mission. Instead, she is somehow the person manning the radar at base and letting the soldiers know that fighters jets have been scrambled as their intrusion into Pakistan is spotted. Equally, the need to distil an entire nation’s pain and bitter determination into one person exerts a toll on credibility. Towards the end, the global search nearly becomes solely and exclusively Maya’s property and some of the dialogue lines to stress that are risible even coming from a performer as accomplished as Chastain. Frankly, they’d be risible coming from Rambo.

Like its’ central character,  Zero Dark Thirty is cold and methodical. That innate coldness may put some viewers off. Others may not get the film they expected.  Thankfully the tone is mainly more cerebral than celebratory. As embodied in Maya, it’s clear even in a moment of victory that key values and qualities have been lost forever. It’s a fitting and well judged note of sadness to end on.

James Phelan


Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)

157 mins

Zero Dark Thirty is released on 25th January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty  – Official Website


‘Django Unchained’ Could do with an Operation Transformation


The Western gets the Tarantino treatment has been the vainglorious gist of the media campaign for this unassuming little fragile film. Well, the good news is that it’s a far superior piece of revisionist history than Inglorious Basterds. The bewildering critical and commercial success of that film continues to baffle me. It was a war film without any real war. Despite its epic running time, it was sketchy and incoherent. Despite its ‘men on a mission’ premise it was barely an ensemble piece. It seemed the goodwill glow engendered by that rightly revered opening farmhouse scene convinced cinemagoers that the uneven mess that followed was of a similar calibre.

Thankfully, the first hour of Django is a different beast entirely. For a while, Tarantino seems intent on curbing his own predilection for indulgently long scenes. Initially, this film has short connective scenes that move the story on with pace and addictive momentum. Genuinely, the opening half of this film as Christoph Waltz’s bounty hunter Doctor King Schultz frees Django (Jamie Foxx) in order to track down the fugitive Brittle brothers is as good as Tarantino has been in decades. Perhaps since his career opening salvo.

To Quentin’s immense credit, Waltz has been handed a peach of a role as the charmingly verbose German who plies his retrieval trade under the guise of a travelling dentist. His eloquent use of English habitually confounds his cow poke adversaries giving him a lethal advantage in any duel. His originally self-serving liberation of Django softens slowly into mutual respect and friendship – a relationship endearingly accelerated by the mere coincidence that Django’s beloved wife goes by the Germanic name Broomhilda. Schultz’s simple desire to speak his native language with someone is a brilliant insight into his character’s loneliness and alienation within America of that era.

With all the verbal fireworks handed to Waltz, it’s a deceptively tough spot for the ostensible star Foxx to be in. By necessity, he is forced to be the stoic, hardened and taciturn hero at the heart of a quest to find and free his enslaved wife. Some occasional humour emanates from Django but the spotlight is constantly dragged elsewhere with Waltz at first and later Leonardo De Caprio and Samuel L Jackson dominating the screen. Foxx excels as the strong, silent type but it’s a losing battle for the film to keep the focus on his character especially once the action transplants to Calvin Candie’s plantation – the incongruously titled Candyland.

Beyond his blackened teeth, Leo’s Calvin Candie is not that vivid a creation. He is all costume, accent and affectation but there’s no real insight into his heart of darkness. True, there are instances of extreme cruelty that emanate from his character but he hardly registers on the baddie scale and is utterly usurped by Jackson’s indelible etching of the house slave Stephen who is so outraged by Django’s open flouting of freedom.  Seemingly brainwashed by generations of slavery, Stephen is bitterly committed to the enforcement and maintenance of the supremacist status quo. In fleeting screen time, Jackson easily eclipses fellow villains Di Caprio and the mute moustachioed gunslinger Kurt Russell with insouciant ease.

The main crux that infects the film is that it slows to a snail’s pace upon arrival at Candyland. Tarantino’s fondness for longwinded rhetoric re-emerges at the worst possible time as it all goes a bit ‘Downton Abbey’ with everyone sitting down to supper. In doing so, Tarantino allows the audience too much thinking time. One is allowed to consider that isn’t this just a reprise of that kitchen table scene from ‘Inglorious’ albeit at the opposite end of this movie.  And isn’t he just remaking the same revenge film constantly and just changing the milieu? And then finally when the speechifying is done, the self referential aspect goes haywire as we are treated to a cowboy variation on the Crazy 88. The slaughter is all masterfully handled and some will love the bullet fest but I was left pining for something different and more. Considering the setting, the climax could have been leaner, darker and derived from character instead of dependent on scale and blood squibs.

And then the audience discovers that even this violent crescendo is not actually the end. The film goes on again with an ill fitting epilogue featuring a lazy escape where Tarantino abdicates his writing duties for an incredibly easy option.  More violence follows but mentally, everyone is already in the car park.

In fairness, this film is an entertainment behemoth. It gives major bang for your buck but I can’t shake the feeling that the two-hour version of this film is a stone cold classic Western. What emerges here is big and bloated. To over-extend a metaphor, in this film Tarantino allows himself plenty of rope resulting in large stretches of slack. When snapped taut, Django Unchained is superb. How much the various languors diminish your enjoyment is probably a matter of personal taste. It may be a Western but there’s no reason why everyone has to end up feeling saddle sore!!!

James Phelan




Cinema Review: Pitch Perfect


DIR: Jason Moore   WRI: Kay Cannon  PRO: Elizabeth Banks, Paul Brooks, Max Handelman   CAST: Anna Kendrick, Skylar Astin, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, Elizabeth Banks

Trends seem to have an unpredictable life span. The entertainment industry will clearly jump on any bandwagon, ride it (and drain it) for all it is worth and sadly still be making films in that narrow niche area long after the rest of the world has moved on.

No prizes for guessing that it’s the shadow of Glee that hangs over this college based comedy about competitive acapella singing. It’s hard for the unwieldy release of a feature to compete with a weekly TV show and still rival it for relevance. In fact, based on my cursory knowledge of Glee (I swear to God it’s cursory) I know that this film doesn’t just cover the same territory as the TV show but it also covers some of the same songs.

That said, it’s a pleasure to report that Pitch Perfect is not some dead-eyed cynical cash in. Sure it’s surprising that it needed to be based on a book in the first place but it does have a sparky undercurrent of genuine wit and is populated by amiable performers with Anna Kendrick leading the cast with her now customary charm. She plays Beca who is reluctantly attending a college where her father is Dean. Determined to remain anti-social while covertly pursuing a career as a DJ, she is reluctantly recruited to the Bellas – an all-female acapella group lead by the highly strung Aubrey (Anna Camp).

Aubrey’s conservative musical choices are boring the bejasus out of judges, choir commentators and members of her own vocal group. There’s a recurring gag about the choir endlessly reprising Ace of Base’s ‘The Sign’ to the muted despair of audiences. Predictably with Beca’s established fondness for remixing and ‘mash ups’, the two girls are on collision course. Although in terms of dramatic stakes, the battle for supremacy is a bit too gentle at times.

Complaining about corny or cringey scenes in a film like this is mainly redundant. Most of the time it’s the exact effect that the filmmakers are aiming for. The smarmy male rivals from the same campus provide plenty of such moments. On a weaker note, (ahem) there’s a regrettable reliance on projective vomiting for negligible comedic return. If anything elevates the film, it’s the impressive ensemble female cast with Rebel Wilson shining as the self dubbed Fat Amy. There’s also a hilariously soft spoken Asian girl who continually confesses terrible things at a volume only dogs could hear.

Musically, the film offers few highlights. Even Beca’s supposedly superior musical taste seems remarkably mainstream and unsophisticated. Remixing ‘Bust a Move’ may be a connective reference to the same song’s use in her breakthrough film Up in the Air but it doesn’t establish her own character in this film especially well.  However, her initially faltering version of ‘No Diggity’ that eventually clicks with her troupe is a mini-triumph. Elsewhere, my ears might be deceiving me but the actual live performances seem to quickly abandon the core concept of the music just being formed from vocals.

There are a few other incidental pleasures in the film too. Producer Elizabeth Banks casts herself as one of those ‘Best in Show’-type commentators who undercut the on-stage sweetness with a dose of acid reality. Though in an odd aberration and massive oversight the film doesn’t actually fully establish who she and co-host John Michael Higgins are actually talking to. They don’t seem to be speaking to the audience in the arena or to TV cameras so who exactly are they addressing their quips to? Each other? Maybe they’re just two lunatics with laptops who wandered in.

There’s further accidental amusement in the casting of Kendrick & Co who are all clearly a decade too old to be playing college girls. Still, even these choices add an extra air of enjoyment to a film that could easily be picked apart by nit-picking but hey, it’s hard to be too down on it at this time of year. If you know what to expect, you should have a good time. If you know it’s not your bag then steer clear.

James Phelan

Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)

112 mins

Pitch Perfect is released on 21st December 2012

Pitch Perfect  – Official Website


‘Na Deich nAitheanta’ (‘The Ten Commandments’) on BBC2 NI tonight

Writer James Phelan concludes a busy year by contributing to the current BBC 2 NI series Na Deich nAitheanta ’(The Ten Commandments) . His instalment ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ broadcasts this Thursday night at 24.20.

The series is comprised of monologues based on witty contemporary takes on each individual commandment. The premise maintains an odd recurring trend in James’ nascent TV career. With the TG4 comedy drama Rasai na Gaillimhe loosely based on the seven deadly sins and this year’s sequel Rasai na Gaillimhe 2 touching lightly on the lesser known seven virtues, James jokingly admits he may become pigeon-holed as ‘the religious numbers guy’.

‘Na Deich nAitheanta’ series was produced by Ashlene Aylward and her Ulysses Films company after she issued an open call for ideas riffing on making the Ten Commandments humorously relevant to modern life. James concedes he has known the producer for a few years. ‘We originally met at an Equinoxe screenwriting workshop in Norway. I was there with my feature script and she was producing another feature. We bonded on a hovercraft trip down a fjord – which isn’t a sentence you get to use very often in life’.

James continues ‘I assumed ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ would be oversubscribed but I threw my entry into the mix. I was naturally pleased it was picked but I remained very hands off. I knew Ashlene had entrusted it to a great actor in Aodh Óg Ó Duibheannaigh. He rightly made the monologue his own and dispensed with a lot of my waffle.

Aodh Og played Charlie Burn in the much loved TG4 Irish language comedy series ‘C.U. Burn’.. In ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’, Aodh Og plays Christian a pest controller whose entire business is jeopardised when he is born again. Despite his claims to the contrary, will his true nature still emerge when put to the test? With a nod to the closing scene of ‘Psycho’, this short monologue packs a punch. The series runs late night this week and next with all episodes available on line after terrestrial broadcast.

James’ year has been bookended with work for TG4. ‘Rasai na Gaillimhe 2’ broadcast to glowing reviews earlier this year. The riotous comedy drama boasts stellar turns from a vast cast including Don Wycherley, Tom O Suilleabhain, Donncha Crowley, Owen Roe and Carrie Crowley. James confesses it’s a treat to write for such great actors. ‘Especially when writing for characters like Don’s politician chancer ‘Ultan Keane’ where you know Don is going to have a field day with the material.’ The original series was similarly well received winning the IFTA for Best Irish Language series in 2010.

The next project in development with TG4 for the Waterford writer is an inventive take on a period drama. The details of ‘Wrecking the Rising’ are still under wraps but the author admits the title is a giveaway about the 1916 setting. However, in the same breath he reveals, ‘we’re hoping to employ a really fresh inventive angle on the seismic events of Easter week by the addition of some fantastical elements that will shake up any notion of a staid dry period drama.’

James Phelan is represented by Holly Carey at Lisa Richards Agency.



Cinema Review: Mental



DIR/WRI: P.J. Hogan  PRO: Todd Fellman, Jocelyn Moorhouse, Janet Zucker, Jerry Zucker  DOP: Donald McAlpine  ED: Jill Bilcock  CAST: Toni Collette, Liev Schreiber, Anthony LaPaglia, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Rebecca Gibney, Deborah Mailman

A lot of people would consider the area of mental health as a minefield for comedy where one should tread carefully and lightly. On the other hand, P.J. Hogan charges gleefully across the same territory with heavy handed abandon, indiscriminatingly setting off politically incorrect bombs in his wake.

Perhaps Hogan’s irreverent attitude stems from the fact that he is apparently drawing on his own family’s history for this companion piece to Muriel’s Wedding. In one way, it’s commendable to tackle this potentially touchy-feely subject matter in such an aggressively brash manner. Unfortunately though, subtlety is the first and continual casualty of the incessant explosions of colour and volume that swamp any message in the material.

The film focuses on the sprawling Moochmore family comprised of five daughters, a Sound of Music-obsessed mother Shirley and a mainly absent dad. Acutely aware of their mum’s loon status within the local community, the girls are locked in a strangely competitive battle to self-diagnose themselves as crazy. When Shirley’s tenuous grip on reality slips, she is institutionalized leaving bad dad Barry (Anthony LaPaglia) desperate to find a child minder. His bizarre remedy is to pick up a random hitch-hiker Shaz (Toni Colette) and install her as a nanny for his moody brood.

In fairness, depicted with limited screen time LaPaglia’s patriarch is a truly despicable creation. Incapable of distinguishing his daughters by name, the damage of his deliberate on-going absence from the family home is only matched by the equivalent havoc inflicted by his rare appearances.  In that context, it’s actually imaginable that he would consider it a good idea to put a homeless hippie with a switchblade in her boot in charge of his clan.

The re-union of Hogan with Toni Colette was probably crucial to this film securing funding. In turn Hogan’s clear desire to create a star turn for Colette unbalances the film.  Sadly, Shaz is probably more fun to play than she is to watch. Her campaign to convince the Moochmore girls that they are sane and normal is intermittently touching but contains plenty of dud moments too. Hogan populates his vision of stifling suburbia with a gallery of grotesques and clichés who are only present as easy targets to rebel against.

The film works in fits and starts but rarely reaches critical mass as a comedy. The first hour is particularly fitful coming across like a high pitched Australian version of Shameless. The vast central cast vie for screen time leaving fringe characters feeling completely indistinct and redundant. Again, the audience’s threshold will be tested to the limit by the film’s unfocused climax. Frankly, there are endless endings as Hogan indulgently ignores ample opportunities to tie the film up. It’s like a broken toy that can’t be turned off – but an audience will be turned off.

While the film may be an uneven blend of shock therapy and wholesome homespun wisdom, anyone in the mood for a colourful and camp confection with plenty of bawdy humour will find Mental fits the bill.

James Phelan

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)

115 mins

Mental is released on 16th November 2012



Another Look at ‘Looper’

DIR/WRI: Rian Johnson  PRO: Ram Bergman, James D. Stern   DOP: Steve Yedlin ED: Bob Ducsay  Cast: Bruce Willis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Piper Perabo, Jeff Daniels

In the not too distant future, time travel has been invented but is strictly outlawed. A rule obeyed by all except major crime syndicates who send their enemies, opponents and problems back to the past to be eliminated. The assassins in the present who carry out this dirty work are known as Loopers.

During a vivid opening sequence, various victims materialise in a remote cornfield to be immediately dispatched by a shotgun blast. The unquestioning trigger man is Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who accepts the illicit money involved and the inevitable Faustian pact where one day his future self will suffer the same fate.

It’s a nifty premise and Joe receives a salient lesson in the folly of showing mercy when a colleague Seth (Paul Dano) allows his future self escape. In a startling scene, the older Seth is fleeing when his body is remotely afflicted by torture being inflicted on his younger self. The nightmarish effect is truly memorable and also weirdly subtle being bereft of blood but full of horror.

Joe is quickly plunged into the exact same dilemma when his older self proves an elusive target as he arrives for execution. Basically outwitted by himself, young Joe must track down older Joe or suffer the wrath of his criminal master. Older Joe is played by Bruce Willis and the physical discrepancy between the two actors is literally bridged by prosthetic work to Gordon-Levitt’s nose and face as well as tweaking his eye colour to match Willis.

To the film credit this casting choice is probably the biggest leap an audience has to take in a rare film where style and substance are in perfect equilibrium. Johnson doesn’t oversell his vision of the future. He shies away from Bladerunner scale to deliver a slightly advanced but recognisable universe where the focus is rightly kept on the engrossing story.

The film drops slightly short of masterpiece status mostly due to the unsavoury nature of older Joe’s mission in the past which involves child murders. The intensity of the storytelling also fades somewhat when the action switches to a remote farm as Emily Blunt’s character is belatedly introduced. However, it rouses itself for a surprisingly emotive and vaguely positive ending where a sliver of hope emerges.

Naturally, the myriad of sci-fi antecedents and influences are obvious throughout with Willis’ presence in particular recalling the not overly dissimilar Twelve Monkeys. Still, Johnson has largely plotted his own distinctive path to create a sharp intelligent blockbuster. This is slick, smart and visually impressive stuff.

James Phelan

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)

Looper is released on 28th September 2012

Looper –  Official website


We Love… 25 Years of Irish Film – The Commitments

Illustration: Adeline Pericart

So Film Ireland magazine is 25 years old. Over those years Ireland has produced some great films which have been successful both here and abroad – not to mention nabbing a few Oscars® along the way. And so over the next couple of weeks Film Ireland‘s army of cinema dwellers look back over the last 25 years and recall their favourite Irish films in the latest installment of…

We Love…

25 Years of Irish Film

The Commitments

(Alan Parker, 1991)

‘… there’s treasure everywhere in this film…’

James Phelan 

For a few years after its’ original release, this film existed in the upper stratosphere of quotable comedic films within my circle of friends and family. It was recited, re-enacted and regurgitated in a style usually reserved for timeless masterpieces like Life of Brian, Withnail & I and Blazing Saddles.

This is heady company for any film, let alone an Irish one. Commercially, it was also the little Irish film that could. It could travel beyond our shores. It could open in America. It could spawn not one but two successful soundtrack albums.

And why did it succeed? Mainly because it has a quality that shamefully few Irish films possess or even aim for in the first place. In summary – it’s fun. A ton of fun. The kind of film that can have you rolling in the aisles one second and then dancing in them the next.

Jimmy Rabitte’s quest to assemble a soul band is a fundamentally doomed venture from the get-go. As the ramshackle group gradually gel, petty bickering, instantrivalries and competing egos are only amplified by the merest hint of success.

The humour is naturally mostly derived from Roddy Doyle’s source novel with its’ vivid approach to language – both colloquial and foul. However, it’s augmented by afresh kinetic cast recruited after an exhaustive talent trawl by director Alan Parker. He can be forgiven for laying on the torched cars and urban squalor a tad hard when his raw ensemble delivers the real heart and soul of the piece.

Betcha U2 are shittin’ themselves

Certainly, there’s the odd ropey moment as career musicians struggle to muster the requisite acting chops but even that only adds to the rough charm that permeates the piece. In retrospect, Parker’s dictum that the eventual band actually had to play the music was central to casting decisions. It still sounds both noble and naive a couple of decades on.

As Calvin and Hobbes would attest – there’s treasure everywhere in this film. Colm Meaney’s career crushing putdowns. Dublin elocution lessons. A priest interrupting a confession to correctly attribute ‘When a Man Loves A Woman’ to Percy Sledge. Andrea Corr before she was famous. A banner saying ‘Heroine Kills’. And film fans,here’s a golden nugget of trivia for you – a young Lance Daly (director of Kisses) crops up amid the hopefuls during the hilarious doorstep audition montage.

The really weird thing about watching The Commitments’now is that it is suddenly a period film. Not so much dated but capturing an era just before it disappeared. Real time-capsule stuff. Relics like video stores abound. And if you don’t get a wave of nostalgia when the price of a bag of chips gets mentioned, you probably weren’t alive in 1991.

As for the music, it propels the film completely in places powered by Andrew Strong’s blistering vocals. Full performances of soul standards start to dominate as the film goes on culminating with three songs in their entirety towards the end. It’s an amazing latitude given to the material by Parker that is almost unthinkable today. The closing sequence isn’t remotely indulgent but perhaps an admission that the band has no stories left to tell. The disintegration of the band is the antithesis of a Hollywood ending but all the more poignant and powerful for it.

My favourite musical moment in the film is just a snippet. The nascent band is receiving yet another pep talk from Jimmy as they travel on the DART. Lead by the sax player Dean, they launch into an acapella version of ‘Destination Anywhere’. Of course, the moment is as consciously and artfully constructed as any other but it feels joyfully spontaneous. And that’s what makes it magic.

I’ve often looked around a DART carriage and pondered trying to cajole a bunch of complete strangers into a chorus of the same song. However, in real life that kind of behaviour can get you committed.