Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Completist Guide to The Boondock Saints series (1999-2009)

The Boondock Saints (1999)
The phrase “cult movie” gets thrown around a lot nowadays and it's a difficult thing to categorise. Everyone has their own opinion of what a “cult movie” is. For me, it's a generally a niche genre film that didn't make much earnings at the box office but found an small but utterly devoted audience some time later. The Boondock Saints is one film that definitely fits that description. In fact it had such a vocal fan base raving about how great it was that I had to check it out and see what all the fuss was about. The film sounded like it was right up my street. It was a low budget film by a first time director that was overlooked at the cinema but found its audience on video and DVD. Hell, there's fans out there who have gone to the length of getting the same tattoos that the two brothers have in the film.
The Boondock Saints tells the tale of Connor and Murphy McManus, two working class Irish brothers living in Boston. When a group of Russian mobsters threaten their local pub the brothers are forced to fight back and end up killing the mobsters in self defense. The police decide not to press charges and the brothers end up walking free. However the seed of an idea has been planted in their heads. What if they turned themselves into vigilantes and took a pro-active approach to killing criminals? As the brothers head out killing any mafia guys they can find, FBI Agent Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe) is assigned to find out exactly who is doing committing all these murders. Will the brothers get caught by Smecker or worse get killed by the mafia's top hit man Il Duce (Billy Connolly)?
That's the bare bones of the script but there's a lot more that doesn't come through in the synopsis. Firstly, the film has a lot of post-modern humour that obviously owes a massive amount of debt to Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. The two brothers are quite enjoyably amateurish in their attempts to take down criminals. More often than not managing to shoot people by blind luck. Secondly, the film also borrows Tarantino's time-hopping editing style so in actual fact we often see the aftermath of the brothers' adventures before witnessing the actual gunfight.
Although The Boondock Saints sounds a little like Death Wish-redux it has a very different feel, for instance the two brothers have no moral qualms about what they are doing at any point. Nor are they motivated by the death or assault of a loved one. Their adventures are cheerfully carefree for the most part. I do get annoyed when film needlessly harm and kill female characters in order to motivate their male protagonists but it somehow felt even more wrong to just let the characters have no motivations whatsoever. It took a very black and white view of the world and I can't help but feel that some of the die-hard fans of this film are the type of people who campaign for the death penalty to be re-introduced.
To be completely honest the film is a bit of mess and it's quite obvious this was Duffy's first film. The directing style is very flat and TV-esque and the writing is all over the place. The film flits back and forth between comedy and drama at a frustrating rate. The lack of motivations of almost all the characters and the eleventh hour reveal of who Il Duce really is feel particularly sloppy. I think another writer really needed to give this a rewrite to bash it into shape. Occasionally the film does spring into life. There are a couple of very stylish and clever sequences in which Dafoe reconstructs what happened from the crime scene. We see the flashback and Dafoe combing the crime scene simultaneously which was a very innovative approach.
I don't know if I could call the acting good but Willem Dafoe is a lot of fun as Smecker and he really elevates the film with his scenery chewing performance. I wouldn't be surprised if Dafoe, knowing Duffy was a first-time director, used his influence to make the character so over the top. Sean Patrick Flanery (Young Indiana Jones) and Norman Reedus (The Walking Dead) are okay as the brothers. Their Irish accents are a little wobbly but I've seen far worse (Brad Pitt I'm looking at you!). David Della Rocco, a friend of Duffy's, gets quite a prominent supporting role as the brothers' sometime sidekick. Much like Jason Mewes in Kevin Smith's film, he's got a raw energy that makes him quite a good actor. Billy Connolly is the one actor that really took me out of the film. Living in the UK I've seen so much of his stand-up shows it's hard to take him seriously as an enigmatic hitman.
Overall, the film is a massive mess of ideas with a very weak storyline that culminates in a silly and very rushed ending. It's hard to call it a complete failure though because in between all the dross there are some stylish flashes and interesting ideas. This is your classic case of a good idea happening to the wrong Writer/Director.
Overnight (2003)
I've got to admit I actually watched Overnight before seeing the original Saints movie. It was on TV late one night and I love watching these kind of warts 'n' all documentaries about the process of film-making. The type of Behind the Scenes documentaries they slap on DVDs are so fake and self-congratulatory that I can't even watch them anymore. “Oh, so and so was so great to work” - please, we all know work is difficult, give me some honesty.
Overnight essentially tells the story of how The Boondock Saints got made from the point of view of two friends of the director Troy Duffy. I'm guessing originally they just wanted to capture his fairytale rags to riches story but what they ended up with (at least the way the film presents it) is a character study of a man whose ego expanded to the point that it almost completely wrecked his life.
In a nutshell, Troy Duffy was a bartender with no screenwriting experience who wrote a script about two vigilante brothers in Boston called The Boondock Saints. The script got bought by Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax, for a hefty sum. Weinstein promised Duffy could also direct the film, and have his band do the soundtrack. To seal the deal he even offered to buy Duffy the bar where he worked. So Duffy began living the high life with his friends and family while his film went into pre-production. However before long Duffy started believing his own hype and burnt bridge after bridge with his arrogant, confrontational demeanour. Several years later the film finally got made on a much reduced budget and his band split up.
I've got to point out first that the film is undoubtably bias against Duffy. It was directed by Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith, two of Duffy's friends that he turned on halfway through the filming of the documentary. So they obviously had no interest in portraying him in a good light. That said, it's difficult to see how else they would have edited this. You can't argue that is several sequences Duffy comes across as completely conceited and shows no humility whatsoever. As guilty as it is to admit, it's fun seeing him drop down a peg or two. 
Overnight also gives an interesting view of how a low budget movie actually gets made. We see Duffy start off by having meetings with actors like Patrick Swayze, Ewan MacGregor and Mark Wahlberg (sadly, not on camera) before having to lower his expectations. We see him set up his office and take conference calls with Harvey Weinstein. We see him going to Cannes to try and shop the picture around. This is the stuff we rarely hear about in Hollywood.
It's a sad tale but an important one. The Saints film ended up flopping at the cinema, Duffy's band sold 600 copies of their album and split up and Duffy ended up utterly defeated. But still he never admitted he did anything wrong. As good as the film is I kind of felt like Montana and Smith were a bit too close to the subject to tell the full story. By the end of the film they have less and less footage of Duffy and rely a lot of other people's soundbites and snippets of information. Despite its bias it's still a highly recommended documentary.
The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day (2009)
The Boondock Saints II was released a full ten years after the original film and in the meantime the first film had grown quite a loyal cult following. The sequel was produced by Stage 6, a subsidiary of Sony that specialises in direct to DVD films which budgets of around $10 million. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect from The Boondock Saints II. Having watched Overnight I was surprised that anyone would even think of hiring Troy Duffy a second time but they did.
Since the events of the first film the McManus brothers have been hiding in Ireland with their father. When a priest is murdered back in Boston using the brothers “coins-on-the-eyes” signature they decide to head back and start their two-man war again. This time they pick up an assistant in the shape of motor-mouth Mexican Romeo (Clifton Collins Jr). Once again an eccentric FBI Agent, Eunice Bloom (Julie Benz), follows their trail of destruction trying to catch them and we're also treated to some Godfather II-style flashbacks that explain the story of Il Duce.
The film sounds a little like redundant semi-remake of the original but there's a fair bit of new material and it does feel like the next chapter of a story. The directing is far more assured in this film. Duffy mixes the humour and drama far better than the original ever did and the story actually flows like a traditional movie. I will say that the set pieces are a little less memorable than the first but that's to be expected. Duffy clearly has much more of a handle on what the film should be. Rather than ape Tarantino again, he ramps up the silliness factor turning it into a much more satisfying wish-fulfilment sequel.
The acting is a bit of mixed bag again. Julie Benz attempts to play another eccentric FBI Agent but can't compete with Dafoe's wonderfully batty performance in the original. She gives it her best shot though. Flanery and Reedus again are only okay as the brothers. One new addition is Clifton Collins Jr who plays Romeo, a sort of replacement character for David Della Rocco. Usually these hyperactive supporting characters (Joe Pesci in Lethal Weapon 3) are quite annoying but Collins succeeds in keeping him on the right side of quirky.
There's a fair bit of fan service to fans of the original. Some of this is good, David Della Rocco for instance gets a fun little cameo. Others seem a bit unnecessary. For instance did we really need to know the backstory of Billy Connolly's character and how he made his trademark jacket? For a direct to DVD sequel Duffy also chooses some famous faces to fill the minor roles. Former Breakfast Clubber Judd Nelson is a welcome addition as a crime boss and does a good job while Peter Fonda just looks mostly bored.
Again, the action is stylishly shot. The film really benefits from the new cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak who worked on George Romero's Land of the Dead. He gives the film a much slicker, glossy look that works well in giving the film more of a larger than life comic-book feel. Whereas the original felt like a mess in terms of story and directing this film feels fairly assured.
In fact, Duffy nearly redeems the original and his reputation with this film. He's still the same old arrogant figure but he's now got enough to suggest that his future films might be worth checking out. This series is an odd case where I don't really like the original but think that the sequel's not half bad.
Anyway, with St Patrick's Day coming up on March 17th, I can think of a better series of Irish themed films (that go well with beer) to recommend. Other than Leprechaun 6: Back 2 tha Hood of course!


  1. Great reviews!!!!!
    I always thought "Boondock Saints" was a good film, but nowhere near the "game-changing" film Duffy claims over and over again on "Overnight". Put simply, had "Reservoir Dogs" not existed, then neither would "Saints" because he borrows so heavily from Tarantino. I recently watched "Saints" again and was less impressed than I was the first time I saw it.

    "Overnight" is SUCH an important documentary for any filmgeek! It's the perfect "what not to do" story for any aspiring filmmaker and this documentary should be mandatory viewing in every film school. It was incredibly fascinating to see this guy's huge fall from grace. I couldn't believe how insanely arrogant he was and obviously never heard the term "don't bite the hand that feeds". I'm not surprised at all that he never got to make any other films, I mean who would want to work for a jerk like that? But I'm still shocked someone actually bank rolled the sequel, which I've had forever but still have never seen. lol. I had actually done a review on "Overnight" waaaaaay back at the beginning of my blog. Glad someone else FINALLY saw this documentary!

  2. I was really disappointed the first time I saw The Boondock Saints but learnt to enjoy it despite its flaws the second time around.

    "Overnight" is such a great film documentary. Another one I'd recommend is "American Movie" about an alcoholic amateur filmmaker trying to get his film finished.

    I'm surprised they gave Duffy the opportunity to make the sequel too. I'm guessing that he had to get the sequel made the hard way, begging and pleading with studios. Something he should have tried on the first film. Check out Part 2, some people hate it, some like it. I'm in the latter camp.

  3. I enjoyed part one and two very much..I never analyzed it, just loved me it was something fresh and very entertaining.
    How can you not love the cat scene? I also saw the documentary, love those too...the behind the scenes stuff and real making ofs are sooo interesting. If there are flaws, I seem to have skipped them, enjoying the ride.

  4. Yeah, there's something quite fresh about both films. I just think that part 2 was far better put together than the original film.

    The dialogue and individual scenes were really memorable but the way they were stitched together was really poor. For instance, the revelation that Il Duce is their long lost father just came out of nowhere.