Devil's Own, The (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The advance word on The Devil's Own was, to put it mildly, not good. About a month ago, Brad Pitt went public with some extremely damaging statements about how, if he hadn't possessed an iron-clad contract, he would have bailed out on the production long before its finish. Then there's the fact that Columbia Pictures delayed the opening from late last year (during pre- Oscar nomination prime time) to the dreary wasteland of March, supposedly as a result of awful preview screenings. With these bits of knowledge spinning in my head, I was ready for a disaster. But, while The Devil's Own isn't going to win any "best of…" contests, it's not nearly as bad as I had been led to believe.

Oh, there are problems, and some of them are fairly serious. But the movie as a whole isn't a complete and utter waste of time. I didn't leave the theater wringing my hands about having lost an evening. Part of the reason The Devil's Own is endurable is because, in spite of various script deficiencies, both of the stars -- Pitt and Harrison Ford -- have an undeniable screen presence. And, while star power can't save a sinking movie, it can at least keep it afloat longer.

The Devil's Own begins in a rousing enough fashion, with a short prologue set in 1972, then a flash-forward twenty years to a police action in Belfast. Frankie Maguire (Brad Pitt), a member of the provisional IRA with more than 18 murders to his credit, is a wanted man. When the British army, aided by the local police, corner him in a warehouse, he and his compatriots fight back, and the result is a bloodbath. Frankie escapes to the U.S. with the assignment to buy stinger missiles from an arms dealer (Treat Williams) and bring them back by boat to Ireland.

Frankie's "host" in the United States is IRA sympathizer Peter Fitzsimmons (George Hearn), who sets him up with a bed and bathroom in the suburban house of NYPD officer Tom O'Meara (Harrison Ford). Tom is a prototypical "good cop" -- he doesn't lie, cheat, steal, or take bribes, and puts the love of his wife (Margaret Colin) and children above all else. He and Frankie, who's now going by the alias of Rory Devaney, become friends. Of course, Tom doesn't know about Frankie's terrorist background. In fact, he doesn't suspect that there's anything sinister about his guest until a group of armed, masked men break into his house and threaten to kill his wife.

For much of its running length, The Devil's Own works as a passable thriller. Certain plot elements (including many of the details surrounding the missile deal) border on preposterous, but that often goes with the territory in films of this genre. The best parts of The Devil's Own are the quiet moments, such as when Frankie and Tom are talking, or when Tom is spending time with his family. There's also an effective subplot that forces Tom to examine his moral outlook on life when his partner (Ruben Blades) accidentally shoots a fleeing suspect in the back.

Unfortunately, The Devil's Own goes downhill fast in the final half hour. Suddenly, it's as if every significant character in the film has undergone a frontal lobotomy. Otherwise-intelligent men start doing extremely stupid things, and the entire "dumbing-down" process becomes frustrating to observe. The final scenes are solid, but the stuff that leads up to them is a problem.

As is always the case in a film featuring the IRA, murky Irish politics are addressed, although veteran director Alan J. Pakula (All the President's Men, Presumed Innocent) does his utmost to make The Devil's Own approach these thorny issues in a non-judgmental, evenhanded fashion by depicting good and evil on both sides. The most interesting facet of the political side of the script is how Irish views are easily distorted in America, an ocean away from the strife and violence. It's easy to classify oneself as a "patriot" when all that's on the line are a few dollars.

Pitt and Ford do credible jobs as Frankie and Tom. Despite his character's brutal, bloody past, Pitt manages to capture our sympathy, in large part because, aside from the killings, Frankie seems like a likable sort of guy. Ford, in a role that's a far cry from the cocky Han Solo, recalls Jack Ryan, the protagonist of Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger -- a hero whose armor is just a little too shiny. Supporting players include Margaret Colin (Independence Day) as Tom's wife, Natascha McElhone (Surviving Picasso) as Frankie's girlfriend, and a nasty Treat Williams as a gunrunner in a suit.

While The Devil's Own doesn't do a spectacular job of fulfilling the promise of its cast or its complex politics-and-guns premise, it is nevertheless reasonably well-paced. The less intently you watch this movie, the greater the chance that you'll be pleased by it. Unfortunately, if you're paying attention, it won't take long to notice that very little of the last act holds together. That sort of high-tension, mind-numbing climax makes it difficult for me to retain more than token enthusiasm for the production as a whole.

Devil's Own, The (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 1997-03-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1