Canada, 1999. A man cautiously walks to his car and gets inside. As he starts up the car, he is approached by a masked man who proceeds to bury 6 bullets in his body. The confrontation is quick and brutal. It is also our first introduction to Martin McGartland as he lies bleeding on the front seat of his car. This is the hook employed by director Kari Skogland to tell the story of one man who chose his own morality over the path in life he had been conditioned to accept. Knowing that his moral awakening occurred during the tumultuous period of Northern Ireland's history known as the Troubles allows us to place the human elements of his life in a context normally informed by its politically charged setting.
Traveling back 11 years from the bloody beginning, we see Martin (Jim Sturgess) as a young man in the Belfast area of Northern Ireland. He's a small time 'entrepreneur' who sells stolen goods to folks in his Catholic neighborhood against the strict rules of the IRA. His cheery disobedience doesn't go unnoticed as he attracts the attention of IRA members as well as Special Branch Intelligence officials. After a particularly nasty encounter with IRA enforcers who kneecap his friend, he accepts a job with them despite disagreeing with some of their methods. At first he believes himself to simply be a driver, ferrying IRA officials across town. When he slowly comes to realize the supporting role he is playing in IRA sponsored acts of bloodshed in the city, we see the first signs of the internal struggle that will define the rest of his life. From there it is a small logical leap to understand why he takes up Special Branch Intelligence Officer Fergus (Ben Kingsley) on his offer to turn informant regarding future IRA activities. It is at this point that the tension bubbling under the film's surface rises to the top as we see Martin placing himself in situations where he risks being discovered while steadily ascending through the IRA ranks. As evidenced by the opening scene, it is only a matter of time before his luck will run out. The thrill is in following his journey to that point while keeping an eye on the losses that will add up to his price of admission into this world.
Before I delve into the characters any further, I want to make it clear that I will not be taking any sides in the IRA conflict because frankly, the film isn't interested in doing so either. I've heard of the IRA referred to as terrorists and freedom fighters. I suppose that much like every other conflict in the world, big or small, it comes down to viewpoint and perspective. There are grey areas to be found in most dark periods of human history. The shifting nature of righteousness and purity of intent can't be pinned down on an absolute level. 50 Dead Men Walking recognizes this and chooses to focus on Martin's story alone. To be fair there are people who come into contact with Martin, like his friend Sean (Kevin Zegers) or his love Lara (Natalie Press), who are interesting characters in their own right. However, it must be noted that they are most interesting when they are acting as foils for Martin and revealing aspects of his complex personality to the audience. From his first appearance on screen, we can tell that Martin is much more than he seems. He is more ambitious than anyone, including Sean, gives him credit for. He is also more unflinching in his convictions than his handlers would like him to be. He is the sum total of his dualities and there are many to be found. Growing up without a father, we see him developing relationships with Fergus and his IRA mentor, Mickey (Tom Collins) that seek to fill that void in his life. Then there's the divide between love and lust. On the side of love, we find Lara who caught a glimpse of Martin's softer side and liked what she saw. Coming through for lust, we have Grace (Rose McGowan), an IRA agent who doesn't seem to care that Martin has someone waiting for him at home.
As I've mentioned, Martin is a tough character to pin down because we're never quite sure what his motives are. His conscience may nag at him and prevent him from committing any ugly deeds himself, but that doesn't stop him from thrilling in the adrenaline rush that accompanies his every step toward the precipice of discovery. Perhaps it's the accompanying taste of bile that keeps him in check. We get to sample his repulsion in a brutal interrogation scene that uses restraint to confirm what we've always known. What the mind can't un-think is far worse than what the eyes can't un-see. It is especially sickening for Martin because he is responsible for leaking the information that the man is being held accountable for. Allowing the man to die for his actions is something that Martin has to live with but it is partly justified by the number of people he saves in the process. It is believed that through his information, Martin saved 50 men from meeting an untimely demise. This explains the enigmatic title of the film.
Although all the actors hit their marks and inhabit their characters completely, this is the Jim Sturgess show from start to finish. I had my doubts about his ability to pull off the character due to his youthful baby face but this actually worked to his advantage. He perfectly captures the character's relative innocence in the beginning of the film and then follows through by allowing his growing internal conflict to peek out of his expressive eyes. Ben Kingsley had the more subdued role as Martin's Special Branch handler. He plays Fergus as a model of restraint until he cuts loose during the climax to aid Martin just as the you-know-what is about to hit the fan. The performances in the film are greatly enhanced by the work of cinematographer Jonathan Freeman. His handheld camera work gives many scenes, including an early foot chase through the streets of Belfast, an immediacy that is greatly appreciated. Fortunately he also knows how to frame his shots so that the quieter moments have an unsettling intimacy verging on voyeuristic intrusion. I also want to make a special mention of the original songs by Ben Mink that are sprinkled throughout the film. They employ Celtic instruments in the service of wistful melancholy.
Kari Skogland directs the whole affair with great gusto. She manages to pace the film such that its 2 hours fly by effortlessly. She also wrote the screenplay and unfortunately this is where she falters a bit. Disclaimers at the start and end of the film go to great lengths to state that this film is inspired by, but is not an adaptation of, the book written by Martin McGartland and Nicholas Davies. The distinction between 'inspiration' and 'adaptation' are key here. Lots of movies take liberties with their source material but I feel that Skogland's enhancements go a little too far in the name of making the proceedings more cinematic. In her commentary track, she suggests that the interrogation scene and the climactic chase may not have happened to the real McGartland. These are two of the most memorable scenes for me so while I have no issue with their inclusion in the film, they do hurt the credibility of any claims that suggest the film bears a resemblance to real events. A few other scenes also stretch the believability of the characters even when viewed purely as fiction. Martin's initiation into the IRA comes right on the heels of the scene where his friend is kneecapped. His sudden and enthusiastic acceptance of the position isn't in keeping with what we've seen from him and frankly it left me confused. Martin's choice to become an informer for Fergus is less abrupt but it still feels like some connective tissue was sacrificed in order to keep things moving along. These are definitely minor quibbles and when viewed as pure fiction this is still a crackerjack story. Skogland deserves a lot of credit for crafting a tale that is both compelling and exciting. Despite a few missteps, she demonstrates a sure hand and guides the film to an appropriately bittersweet finish.
Next up we have 13 Deleted Scenes totaling 8:40 of runtime. Most of these scenes are minor extensions of existing scenes but there are a few that add welcome character moments. I enjoyed a short scene in Paddy's warehouse where Martin spends entirely too much time worrying about high heels. The next extra feels more like filler but if you're curious about day to day occurrences on the film's set, we have roughly half an hour of B Roll footage in Behind the Scenes of 50 Dead Men Walking. This footage doesn't have any narration and only features occasional input from cast members or crew members as scenes are being set up. Closing out the extras is a Theatrical Trailer for our feature. This is nice to see since so many releases skimp on this basic but desirable extra.