Dir. Kari Skogland. UK/Canada. 2008. 118 mins.
It was only in the aftermath of the Vietnam War that filmmakers were able to create a substantial body of work reflecting the complexities of what had happened there. The same is proving to be true of the recent ‘Troubles’that tore Northern Ireland apart for the best part of forty years. This year has already seen Steve McQueen’s triumphant debutHunger. Now, Canadian director Kari Skogland brings her eye to bear on the heat of the conflict with a slick thriller that plays like Scorsese lite. A confident production, it has the dynamism and commercial instincts to connect with a mainstream audience and can only benefit from the rising profile of 21 star Jim Sturgess.
A true story, inspired by events in the life of Martin McGartland, Fifty Dead Men Walking begins in the Canada of 1999 where Martin (Sturgess) is gunned down in a hail of bullets. The film is a lengthy flashback to his life in 1988 as a cocky, unemployed ne’er-do-well in Northern Ireland. A youngster who seems fearless and indifferent to the politics that define the region, he is identified as a prime target for recruitment by a British Special Branch operative known as Fergus (Ben Kingsley).
Martin’s concerns appear to be making a living and looking after his pregnant girlfriend (Nathalie Press). If the British are willing to pay him money then he is not going to refuse it. That is the first step in a relationship with Fraser that gradually deepens as Martin becomes a high-level informer. He wins the trust of the IRA as he starts to advance through their ranks to a position of power. He would later assert that fifty dead men were alive because of his actions, hence the title of the film.
Martin Scorsese has always shown a fascination with the life of the informer; a trusted insider who eventually betrays the people he has come to know and even respect. It is a primary theme in Goodfellas and The Departed. It is also the means to provide an almost forensic examination of how an organisation works. It is a similar approach that Kari Skogland takes here as Martin’s experiences in the IRA allow us an unflinching view of the torture, rough justice and vengeful violence deployed in the name of a cause.
Fifty Dead Men works best as a conventional but politically charged thriller. A heavy-handed use of music and a fondness for burnished visuals tends to over-egg the film, making it feel glossy rather than gritty.
Sturgess once again confirms his ability to carry a film with a performance that is just as commanding but very different from his most notable roles in Across The Universe and 21. Kevin Zegers is virtually unrecognisable and sports an entirely convincing Irish accent as his closest friend and die-hard IRA supporter. Only Ben Kingsley seems miscast as British handler Fergus, although he does invest the character with a dry humour.
Handmade Films International
Peter La Terriere
based on the novel by Martin McGartland and Nicholas Davies