$12 ticket on a scale of $0 to $12.
“Fifty Dead Men Walking,” the latest feature from Canadian helmer Kari Skogland (who also gets producer and screenplay credit), is a tightly wrought spy thriller set largely in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the late 1980s, at the height of the armed conflict between the Irish Republican Army (IRA), militant Irish Protestants, and the British. Pic is based on the autobiography of Martin “Marty” McGartland (Jim Sturgess), a charming young, Irish Catholic hustler of stolen goods, who is recruited by the British to spy on the IRA. Marty is also recruited by the IRA and quickly moves up its ranks, much to the delight of British handler “Fergus” ably played by Ben Kingsley wearing a rug. Brits give McGartland, who survived at least three assassination attempts by the IRA, credit for saving the lives of at least 50 IRA targets – hence pic’s title.
It is unnecessary to know the intricacies of Irish politics to enjoy pic. Stage is clearly and economically set in opening reel with voice-over narration by Kingsley, some supers, and period footage of the armed conflict. A crucial scene establishes what the IRA does to double agents (“touts”) and underscores the risk Marty takes. Nuanced performances by principal players and spot-on editing by Jim Munro make a very complicated plot (think of TV mini-series, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) easy to follow. Skogland sticks to facts, and in this case, reality makes fabulous art. Skein would be tough to swallow were it not for revelation at pic’s end (via supers put to good use) that Brits and IRA men at high levels were dealing under-the-table in the lives of their own agents: The first hit on Marty is carried out by the IRA at behest of a high-level Brit.
It’s not that Marty is an easy British recruit. He is anything but. Street justice administered by the IRA to his best friend changes his mind. If anything Marty is apolitical. He just wants an end to the violence. So does Fergus, despite his warnings about the dangers of conscience. For about three years, Marty foils one IRA plot after another, despite the heavy-handedness of MI-5, the British domestic intelligence service, which at times prefers shooting people to arresting them. At the same time Marty meets and falls for Lara (Natalie Press) with whom he shacks up and has two kids. The domestic subplot in a thriller is always in danger of being predictable, but this one ducks it with superior performances and an excellent story element: Lara believes, although she is not told, that Marty is mixed up in the IRA, and as mother of his kids, it bugs her. His work for the Brits is so secret that he cannot even tell his girl or his mother.
Rose McGowan shines as Grace, the sultry chief of IRA intelligence, to whom Marty is assigned as driver and bodyguard. When she comes on to Marty it’s tough to tell whether she’s testing his loyalty to “the cause” or using her charms to ensure it. In a convoluted way, Grace is Marty’s undoing as a double agent. A high level Brit throws him under the bus in what is supposed to be his last sting, an operation where she is the highest level target. Afterward, he and his family are to be relocated with new identities. Instead he becomes Dead Man Walking Number 51 in a highly suspenseful climactic reel in which handler Fergus is the center of the action.
To its credit, pic does not take sides in the Irish civil war. It’s more of “a pox on both your houses” thing. One is led to believe that corruption on both sides kept it going far longer than it otherwise would have. Perhaps senior officials used it as a cover to settle private scores. Pic does not explain their motivations. But it does underscore their amorality and the similarity of their tactics.
Tech credits excel. For American auds, understanding Irish accented English can be tough, but not here. However, just in case it is, all dialogue is subtitled, something that more directors ought to consider.
“Fifty Dead Men Walking” is a very fast 117 minutes and ought to be a contender for Best Picture. Skogland should be up for Best Director, and pic ought to get noms for lensing, editing, and screenplay, as well as a host of performance nods. Although laden with violence, none of it seems gratuitous. Shots are framed to minimize blood and gore. Both violence and such sex and profanity it has are organic to pic. Despite that it is not a film for pre-teens, but adults should be very satisfied by it.
—30—50 Dead Men Walking on Netflix