The problem with "relevant" films is they almost immediately become irrelevant -- "ripped from the headlines" current event movies are the mayflies of the movie biz. Canadian director Kari Skogland's Fifty Dead Men Walking takes place in Belfast circa 1980 -- a time when bloody conflict was a daily reality between British troops and the IRA. While the IRA was a hot topic in the 90's, spurring the production of several films related to the paramilitary organization (Michael Collins, Patriot Games, In the Name of the Father, to name a few), today the subject seems about as passé as neon green shoelaces and slap bracelets. There are several reasons for this: 1) the media's fickleness in its coverage of international news 2) the IRA signed a disarmament treaty in 1998 3) 9/11. (Non-middle eastern terrorists are so eight years ago!)
The film follows, Marty (Jim Sturgess) -- a likable young (Catholic) guy making a living selling stolen pants, shoes and dresses to his neighbors in the restricted economy of 1980's Belfast. Despite his happy-go-lucky nature he soon becomes embroiled in the political intrigue swallowing Northern Ireland in a fog of violence. At first he works as a driver for the IRA, following in the footsteps of many members of his community. Though he garners the respect of his mates and the girl he fancies, he becomes disillusioned after witnessing the brutality his fellow patriots partake in. At his point, he becomes a spy for the slightly less evil British police, thus having to betray the people he cares about in order to satisfy his moral sensibilities.
The best part of this movie by far is young Sturgess, whose charismatic amiability keeps you glued to the screen. Just as an aside, however, I have to question why the rising star continues to sport the same ratty facial hair and bristly fashion mullet in every role since he launched his Hollywood career in Across the Universe?! Ah well -- despite his questionable grooming choices Sturgess remains an appealing leading man. Ben Kingsley (as usual) contributes a solid, if not particularly memorable performance as Marty's handler in the British Police. In a mysterious bit of casting American actress, Rose McGowan plays a sexy IRA operative named Grace . . .who appears on screen for, at the most, ten minutes. During this brief cameo, Grace attempts to seduce Marty despite the fact he is married with children. Unlike the real McGowan who made tabloid headlines in 2006 when famous director/family man Robert Rodriguez left his wife and five kids for her, Grace fails in her designs.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is its unambiguous rejection of the moral validity of the IRA. Post 9/11, I suppose, we live in a world where extra-government militant cells are more likely to be categorized as terrorists than freedom fighters. From the Una-bomber look-alike IRA explosives expert to a graphic scene where the IRA tortures a man by electrocuting him with a jumper cable, we know these guys are the bad guys.
While the film succeeds in being fast paced and entertaining, it never overcomes the vintage feel of its subject matter. The whole time I couldn't stop thinking, "shouldn't this movie have been made ten years ago?" And most likely someone had been campaigning to make this film since 1999 -- the year Martin McGartland released his autobiographical book upon which the film is based. Sadly, there are no new insights into the conflict from what came previously and, while its budget is modest, it is made in the generic style of big budget Hollywood thrillers. However, all that being said, I don't doubt that there is a limited audience who will enjoy this film.