Filmed in vivid black and white, writer-director John Boorman’s The General tells the real-life story of infamous Dublin crime boss Martin Cahill. Beginning at the end, the film opens with the murder of Cahill by the IRA in 1994, then rewinds, literally, to his youthful years as a petty thief and family provider. We see the young thug being forged by dire poverty and no expectations, early jail and buggering priests, watch as he reveals himself to be tougher and smarter than his peers, a natural leader.
The grown-up Cahill, played by Brendan Gleeson, seems at first an uncharismatic sort — with his lank hair, potato face and passing resemblance to the singer Meatloaf, he seems, in fact, a little clownish. It’s an impression enhanced by his odd habit, whenever in public places, of placing his hand to his face and peeking through his fingers. But it’s a mocking reticence, part of what Cahill calls “the game.” He’s not protecting his anonymity with his trademark gesture; he’s flaunting his fame.
Boorman has said that he wanted to be careful not to romanticize Cahill. But what can we make of a character who crucifies one of his gang members by nailing him to a pool table, causes grievous injury by blowing up the car of a trial witness, and yet at the end of the day seems a rather likable bloke? If Cahill, for all his ruthlessness, never seems a monster, it’s less because he’s been softened than fleshed-out. Boorman presents him as a complicated creature in a dismally complicated place, and Gleeson’s impressive performance conveys an intriguing mix of roguishness, rage and fatal bravado.
Also excellent is Jon Voight as Cahill’s longtime nemesis, Inspector Ned Kenny. Kenny is in on “the game” too, but much less happy with his role. Cahill may think that his life is essentially farcical, but Kenny knows that it will inevitably be tragic and that there’s nothing he can do about it.
John Boorman has had a career which could best be described as sluggish. After the early excellence of Point Blank (1967) and Deliverance (1972), only Excalibur (1981) and Hope and Glory (1987) came close to living up to such auspicious beginnings — though he’s made several films that the judicious could call “interesting.” With The General, he’s back at the top of his game, concocting his mix of hard-boiled fable and lyrical realism with the assurance of an old master.