The Devil's Own

Salon movie review for March 28, 1997 -- "The Devil's Own".

Published April 28, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

if you've been to see any of the "Star Wars" trilogy during the past few weeks and you happen into "The Devil's Own," you might find yourself asking what happened to Harrison Ford. Somewhere along the way, that cocky, charming actor, who once could get you immediately on his side with a single wise-ass grin, gave way to the glum-faced stiff on display here.

How did acting become such a joyless exercise for Harrison Ford? In "The Devil's Own," as a New York City cop who discovers that the young Irish immigrant (Brad Pitt) he and his family have taken in is a wanted IRA commando, he's as humorless as he was in "Presumed Innocent," "The Fugitive" and the Tom Clancy adaptations. Apparently Ford has decided that he should play squares. In picture after picture he plays straight arrows who find themselves caught in dangerous circumstances, but it's Ford's reaction -- that unvaried tone of outraged decency -- that gets the most tiresome. (In "Patriot Games" and "Clear and Present Danger," it gets funny, too. The movies ask us to swallow the idea of an intelligence officer who's shocked to discover that American intelligence does bad things.)

Ford has become our Gary Cooper: an actor who erased his initial sex appeal to play stoic, righteous and deeply boring men. Just as the ravishing young Cooper of "Morocco" bears no relation to the tall-in-the-saddle lawman of "High Noon," you can watch "The Devil's Own" in vain for a glimpse of Ford's former rakishness. "Working Girl" was almost 10 years ago, but I can still recall the goofy, love-struck look that comes over Ford's face when Melanie Griffith tells him she woke up at his place in her undies and he says, "I bet you looked nice."

The tension in "The Devil's Own" is meant to be between Ford's growing affection for Pitt and his duty as a cop to stop him before he can succeed in smuggling arms to Northern Ireland. But between Ford's look of dyspeptic concern and the goo-goo eyes the camera makes at Pitt, there barely seems to be a connection between the two. Pitt isn't incompetent or ludicrous, and he does a decent Irish accent. The trouble, as always with him, is that from moment to moment he's otherwise completely unbelievable. Pitt has been anointed as a star before he's learned to express himself as a performer. His Irish accent, like the New York accent he used in "Sleepers," is no substitute for performance. Acting is about connecting with your fellow actors as well as with the audience, and Pitt doesn't. He simply turns up to present himself for adoration. Pitt may not take the nice-guy roles that earlier pretty boy screen idols once did (though he reportedly held out for script changes to make his character more sympathetic), but then Hollywood isn't making the sort of movies blond, blue-eyed dreamboats once got cast in. As an actor, there's no more reason to take Pitt seriously than there was with Tab Hunter or Troy Donahue.

"The Devil's Own" isn't the disaster its bad advance publicity might lead you to expect. (The picture went over schedule and badly over budget -- the final cost was around $90 million -- and Pitt bad-mouthed it to the press, only to recant, reportedly under pressure from Columbia.) But it's a disjointed, sluggish picture. The screenplay, credited to David Aaron Cohen and Vincent Patrick, with Kevin Jarre (from a story by Jarre), bears the marks of tinkering. Swatches of the story appear to be missing, relationships aren't clearly defined, and characters aren't identified. (At one point Pitt hears that one of his IRA associates has been killed, and nobody I talked to at the screening I attended could figure out which character that was.) It's never explained how the saloon owner (Treat Williams) Pitt deals with in America is able to get his hands on the missiles Pitt wants to buy from him, or how a prominent judge (George Hearn) is able to disguise his IRA fund-raising activities.

The director, Alan J. Pakula ("All the President's Men"), does some impressive work in the sequence where Pitt and his squadron are surrounded in their hideout by the British army. He captures a sense of everyday life that includes routine eruptions of spontaneous chaos. As British soldiers draw their guns on the street, two girls walking by duck into a store for cover, one sauntering as if she's seen this so many times she can't be bothered to rush. The violence starts before you're prepared for it, and it happens so quickly that the brief, startling glimpses you're given -- a dead British soldier sitting against a wall, his wide eyes and open mouth still registering the surprise of being shot -- hit you on the rebound. And there's a nice symmetry to the opening and closing images, a sense of how Irish history endlessly repeats itself.

For a Hollywood picture, the contention that British intelligence has acted more like assassins than agents of the law in tracking down IRA fugitives is unusually plainspoken. But I hope that viewers looking for something to illuminate "the troubles" will instead seek out Terry George's film "Some Mother's Son," with Helen Mirren and Fionnula Flanagan, either in second-run theaters or when it comes out on video. Nobody gets off the hook in "Some Mother's Son," the story of Bobby Sands and the IRA hunger strikers. The movie shows how the tough line taken by Thatcher's government -- the suspension of civil rights, prisoners jailed in appalling conditions -- unwittingly validated and inflamed the IRA's rhetoric. Yet there isn't a moment where the movie doesn't refute the use of violence. It's a passionate yet utterly scrupulous political film.

At one point in "The Devil's Own," Pitt tells Ford how at 8 years old he saw his father shot to death at the family dinner table. "It's not an American story," he says, "it's an Irish one." But then you look at Ford, doing his lantern-jawed Boy Scout bit, and Pitt, a pure product of the Hollywood PR machine if there ever was one, trying to convince us that he's an IRA terrorist. And you think, "The hell it is."

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------