Why It Works: The Boondock Saints
Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.
Happy St. Paddy's Hangover Day! If you were in college or high school in the early 2000's, then you probably saw THE BOONDOCK SAINTS when a friend told you about it or you came across the DVD in the cheap bin and decided to give it a whirl. Troy Duffy's film about two Irish brothers going Old Testament on criminals had almost no theatrical exposure and only gained popularity slowly over the following years, earning just over $30,000 in theaters and somewhere in the area of $50,000,000 in home video sales. Blending organized crime, religion, comedy, and action, featuring a stand-out performance by Willem Dafoe, and celebrating Boston's Irish Catholic heritage, THE BOONDOCK SAINTS overcame obscurity and became a cult favorite thanks largely to word of mouth. Here's why it works:
WHY WE LIKE THE CHARACTERS:
We first encounter Murphy and Connor MacManus attending a Catholic Mass in downtown Boston. As the monsignor lectures the congregation on the indifference of good men, it's suggested the brothers are responsible for pushing the sermon's subject matter. After spending St. Patrick's Day at work and the evening at the pub with friends, a series of event leads them to kill two Russian mobsters in self-defense. By the time the boys make the decision to kill bad men to protect the innocent, we've seen them as regular guys with compassion for those in trouble. Also, the vague prophetic moment in which they come to this conclusion helps to establish their actions as more calling than choice. Tracking the brothers' trail of retribution is FBI Agent Paul Smecker, a flamboyant, opera-loving, and talented investigator. Once he connects the dots and figures out what the brothers are up to, Smecker's own morality comes into question, which in turn makes him a more complicated and interesting character than the Saints themselves. It's also refreshing to have a non-stereotypical gay character be one of the best things about the film, especially in such male-driven fare (yes, it's a bit forced, and the gay jokes were old even in 1999, but still). Of course, no hero is complete without his sidekick, so the brothers have Rocco, and Smecker has Duffy, Dolly, and Greenly, all of whom represent typical, regular guy Bostonians and all of whom eventually come around to the brothers' way of life.
"Hey, Doc, I gotta buy you, like, a proverb book or something. This mix 'n match shit's gotta go."
WHY WE CARE:
"Destroy that which is evil... so that which is good may flourish." Yeah, so, THE BOONDOCK SAINTS is about two guys deciding to murder a bunch of people. Bad people, of course, but I'm sure there are some audiences for whom this is simply not an acceptable premise. There's a lot going on here to keep most of us on board, though. For starters, we have the religious angle. The brothers MacManus are not only rosary-bearing Catholics, but their revelation in the prison goes so far as to suggest a divine connection. Moreover, this is not a film of the white hats vs. the black hats so much as light gray vs. dark gray. We'll come back to the morality tale in the next section, but until then, there's a very important element which makes this an engaging film: it's a hell of a lot of fun. For one, the movie doesn't take itself too seriously. Rather than trying too hard to be a cool action flick, THE BOONDOCK SAINTS is about characters who want to believe they're in a cool action flick. This allows for a nice balance between the ridiculous and the sincere. Finally, the reverse crime scene storytelling in which Smecker appears in the flashbacks makes for some great moments, and having Smecker hot on the boys' trail keeps this from just feeling like a wish fulfillment bloodbath.
WHY WE'RE SATISFIED:
Okay, so, at first glance, everything wraps up nicely. I didn't like seeing Rocco go (as I'm sure Sam Elliott would say if he were narrating the film), but otherwise, the boys are reunited with their father, Agent Smecker and his team become Saints in training, and Yakavetta is treated to some divine justice. What we still haven't answered, though, is whether or not any of this is okay. Instead of ending the film with a helicopter shot of Boston and a be-at-peace prayer in Billy Connolly's heavy brogue, we're left with pieces of people-on-the-street interviews. Some passersby believe the Saints are doing God's will, some believe they're justified in their actions, many condemn their vigilantism, and even more just don't want to talk about it. While it's easy to root for the protagonists when you're in the world of the film, this final scene lets you come to your own conclusion about where to draw the line between the indifference of good men and taking matters into your own hands.
"In nomine Patris... et Filii... et Spiritus Sancti."
WHY WE REMEMBER:
Look, I'll be the first to say it: THE BOONDOCK SAINTS has some issues. There's some so-so acting by the minor characters, Norman Reedus' accent in particular is cringeworthy, and the whole thing demands a considerable suspension of disbelief. Moreover, the film's mediocre sequel and the documentary OVERNIGHT suggest that writer/director Troy Duffy really got lucky on his first outing. That said, THE BOONDOCK SAINTS is nothing if not memorable. The characters are fun, the religious motif is interesting, the lines are quotable, and the whole thing is incredibly rewatchable. Like many indie level films, the bad elements almost serve as a testament to how strong the good elements are. The Boston Irish crime thing feels a bit overdone today, but it was certainly fair game in 1999. It's also nice to see a movie not trying to be something it isn't- BOONDOCK is an over the top, tongue-in-cheek satire, and it knows it. While I'm sure it helps to have seen the movie when it came out and at the right age, THE BOONDOCK SAINTS holds up as an excellent joyride and is still finding new fans today.
Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!
If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Extra Tidbit:||Check out yesterday's Where It Was Made video featuring Clifton Collins, jr. and Troy Duffy!|