Man at the Top

Jimmy Cagney brought the same electric physicality to gangsters that he did to song-and-dance men. He gave a bright-eyed mug like his character in The Public Enemy extraordinary powers of attraction and repulsion. In The General, Brendan Gleeson enacts a real-life criminal chieftain -- Dublin's notorious Martin Cahill -- with a belly-hanging-out buffoonery that is just as magnetic as Cagney's feral grace. In the course of the film, Cahill's gang loots a bank, some swank estates, and even a jewelry manufacturing plant, putting a hundred employees out of work. Covering his face with his hand to avoid detection, Gleeson's Cahill plays peekaboo with the law. But the audience sees everything, from his rock-hard street smarts to his twin Achilles' heels of paranoia and nostalgia.

The General is brilliant and engulfing: Writer-director John Boorman catapults us into a one-man crime wave. The movie is basically a turbulent flashback, beginning and ending with Cahill's death. His life rushes before his inner eye in the split second before the IRA guns him down in his car. By the time the hit occurs, in 1994, he's a risk to everyone. This combination godfather, jester, and thug has become the far-too-public enemy of all Dublin authorities, rebels included.

In his imagination Cahill is an underclass hero to the end. At the brink of death, he remembers a youthful raid when he stole cigarettes for his mom and cream cakes for himself and the girl next door (his future wife). As a teen in the '60s he views the goods in the world outside his family's housing project as his for the taking. He isn't bitter about life there, and later, as a semi-grownup, he idealizes the place, refusing to leave when the city starts to tear it down. (During his rise and fall, he trusts only men and women who once dwelled in "my house.")

Cahill's world-view is elemental: "It's Us against Them." "Us" is the kind of folk who live in projects, and "Them" is everybody else. It's a vision beneath or beyond politics. The General is so vivid and engrossing because Boorman alternately honors and debunks Cahill's perspective.

It's now a reviewer's cliche to call the latest Hollywood thrill machine "a roller coaster ride." To borrow from poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, The General is a Coney Island of the mind. Sure, you know Cahill will be killed, but Boorman's approach is bracingly antimoralistic and open-ended; unless you've read Paul Williams' nonfiction source book of the same title, you can't predict Cahill's behavior. And even if you have read Williams' book, you can't tell what tone a scene will take or what references it will call up. When Cahill tries to protect his housing project from destruction, he doesn't just get in the way of the wrecking ball: He squats in a small trailer amid the rubble. When the trailer is burned down, he squats in a tent. The whole sequence resembles an absurdist recasting of the dispossession scenes in The Grapes of Wrath -- an impression clinched by the film's subtly changeable, searingly expressive black-and-white cinematography. Cahill, as well as Boorman, succeeds at putting his own spin on valiant Depression imagery. The effect is improbably, bitterly hilarious.

Gleeson creates a figure of unceasing fascination, rooting his character in a deep-seated wiliness and volatility that energize every inch of his big face and stocky body. His Cahill is the master of opaque rumination, the wizard of deadpan. Cahill's ploys are as intriguing for baldness as for boldness. He hides his thinning hair and thick features with ski masks, helmets, or bulky, hooded windbreakers. After he commits a crime and before it is discovered, he'll walk into a police station and register complaints of harassment, thus sealing up a lead-cinch alibi. His evasive actions do double duty: They permit him to dodge indictments while openly expressing his contempt for conventional law and order. At his peak of comic effrontery, he won't admit to reporters that the police are tailing him -- even when two uniformed cops are walking right behind him.

You can judge how much energy goes into his public masks by his direct, intense focus when he's instructing his half-dozen top henchmen about impending larcenies. Relaxing at home with his wife and kids, he turns into that rarity in '90s movies, a warm, genuine presence. You believe in him as an offbeat family guy; you believe that his striking, adoring wife Frances (Maria Doyle Kennedy) would encourage him to sleep with her sprightly kid sister Tina (Angeline Ball), and that the siblings would compare notes on lovemaking like the best of gal pals. It's less a menage à trois than a three-way marriage; Cahill divides his time between his place and his sister-in-law's. And he isn't shaken when the cops give him guff about it. Why should he care? It's all in the family.

The appeal of Cahill's Us-against-Them ethos is that it leaves his followers feeling galvanized and protected, able to do as they please as long as they're loyal and useful to the boss. In its own left-handed fashion, The General is the portrait of a leader -- a man whose allies happily accept his will and help him impose it on anyone. And Cahill is undeniably resourceful. If a group called Concerned Parents Against Drugs unfairly tags one of his henchmen as a pusher, then swarms at his front door, Cahill responds by enlisting Concerned Criminals Against Drugs and organizing a counterdemonstration. Like so much in the movie, the episode is implausible but true.

Boorman relies on the charisma of his film's central character to connect with an audience when Cahill's actions are bizarre or inscrutable. And the writer-director's confidence is justified. At his peak Cahill contains multitudes. He argues that he was happy in the tumult of the projects. Yet he glides through a wealthy home in a state of bliss -- pilfering goodies from the fridge and the hamper, rifling through the study, the nursery, and the bedrooms, slipping a bracelet off the arm of a matron knocked out with sleeping pills. You can tell he gets king-size kicks from tickling the lap of luxury. Boorman enhances the scene with Van Morrison singing "So Quiet in Here" ("This must be what paradise is like") on the soundtrack. He further punctuates it with elegant blackouts, while the camera moves as stealthily and fluidly as a cat burglar. The result pulls you in and out of Cahill's omnipotent dreams.

Boorman sustains his complex take on Cahill with the help of a supporting cast that to the man (and woman) can go one-on-one with Gleeson. Ball and Kennedy make up a hardheaded, handsome miniharem; Adrian Dunbar is resolute as Cahill's top lieutenant, ridding himself of the smirk he wore in comedies like Hear My Song. And Eanna McLiam is tremulously affecting as a drug-addicted pigeon dealer whom Cahill literally crucifies before he's convinced that the man is clean.

The juiciest side parts, though, belong to Sean McGinley as the last man standing from the projects, and Jon Voight as the inspector who stays on Cahill's trail. They crystallize the decadence and debasement that ensue on either side of Us against Them. McGinley starts as Cahill's semifarcical sidekick, thrilled to be of service even after the IRA kidnaps him and returns him in need of a wired jaw and a neck brace. But by the end he has raped his own daughter (in a drunken haze, he claims) and caused Cahill to overcome his personal repulsion to try to keep him out of jail. McGinley keeps astonishing you with his ability to wring rueful laughter out of his transparent weakness. In one breathtaking moment, he thanks Cahill for grievously wounding him -- a touch that epitomizes the perversity of tribal loyalty in the Cahill gang. And as Voight's thoughtful characterization suggests, Cahill's extreme tribalism catalyzes an equally dangerous countertribalism. "You're getting to be like me," Cahill tells the cop. "Trespass, harassment, intimidation, beating people up. You've had to come down to my level." Voight shows us that he knows Cahill is pushing his brass buttons -- and also that the charge is partially true.

As Cahill rankles the IRA and then tries to enlist a Loyalist terror group in one of his schemes, it's clear that Boorman is using his story to portray the Ireland of this gangster's life and time as a chaos of competing tribes. But the movie isn't primarily political. It's mythic in a vibrant, unselfconscious way. It feels fitting that Cahill's fortunes founder after he takes up art theft. Boorman is one of the few contemporary directors to prove, nearly every time out, that art isn't something you steal from the past -- it's something you must conjure afresh from the mysteries of fate and character. The General is a piece of contemporary folklore as unexpected and potent as a brand-new urban legend.

The General.
Directed and written by John Boorman, from the book by Paul Williams. Starring Brendan Gleeson, Jon Voight, Adrian Dunbar, Sean McGinley, Maria Doyle Kennedy, and Angeline Ball.

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