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‘I Went Down’ captivates

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Michael Gray

I WENT DOWN, by Paddy Breathnach. Written by Conor McPherson. Peter McDonald and Brendan Gleeson. Released by The Shooting Gallery. Opens Wednesday, June 24 in NYC at the Beekman Theater and the Village East. Opens nationwide July 1.

If the prospect of an evening at the cinema watching yet another violent indie crime caper, buddy flick and road movie all rolled into one plotline makes you want to stay home and watch TV, then you’ve probably been pulped once too often by Quentin Tarantino imitators. And if this plotline sounds way too familiar – two minor criminal types sent on a vague mission by a sinister gang boss find themselves out of their league, but within striking distance of a lot of money, if only they can outwit the bigtime mobsters – it’s because we’re in a vein already mined to the point of exhaustion by the Coen Brothers and Tarantino himself.

But what makes Paddy Breathnach’s new film, “I Went Down,” different, and well worth your while investing in a ticket to see, are screenwriter Conor McPherson’s ripe Dublin dialogue and the terrific performances director Breathnach gets from his lead actors, Peter McDonald and Brendan Gleeson. Add to the mix a bluntly realist depiction of the less glamorous parts of Ireland, and the shocking disclosure that young Irish people are as hormonally propelled into guilt-free sexual escapades as their counterparts anywhere else, and you’ve got a fresh take on the Ireland of today, as seen through the eyes of incompetent criminals.

The ill-matched duo, Git Hynes (McDonald), a languid individual who won’t put two words together where one will do, and braindead motormouth Bunny Kelly (Gleeson), sporting monumental sideburns and shoes made from several species of lizard, are thrown together on a mission by sinister gang leader Tom French. Played with stubbly menace by Tony Doyle (a far cry from his role as the unctuous Father Sheehy in Ireland’s ur-soap “The Riordans” way back), French has got something on both of them, and if they carry out the job, they’re off the hook.

Making his screen debut, McDonald delivers an assured performance as the reluctant criminal Git, recently released from jail for a crime in which he was barely involved and roped into the caper by the fecklessness of his best friend Anto. Anto has a bit of trouble with French, who sets his frighteners on the lad to make him pay up on some bad gambling debts. Bunny’s involvement in the job comes about for more delicate reasons that become clear as the plot saunters along.

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The pair hit the road to Cork to fetch French’s business associate, Frank Grogan (Peter Caffrey), bring him to meet “a friendly face,” and retrieve some missing funds for French. Things go wrong, and when they finally rescue Frank from what looks a lot like captivity, Frank doesn’t seem so happy to be rescued, causing Git some perplexity. Frank is a loquacious rogue who has a much clearer idea of what’s going on than the other two, but quickly realizes that he’ll get more mileage out of feigning ignorance as to French’s agenda and where the hidden money might be. Nasty encounters with Frank’s associates force Git and Bunny to look out for each other, and a friendship of sorts evolves between them. They resolve to tackle the mob head-on and track down the missing loot together, risking their lives in the process.

As the older and more experienced of the two, Bunny fancies himself a mentor to the fledgling criminal Git, renting him a gun for the duration of the job, but charging him an extortionate rate per bullet, to keep things professional and business-like between them. He throws in a free firearms lesson for Git, showing him how to behave like a psycho and make the perp at the business end of the gun barrel believe that he’s just crazy enough to use it.

But while Bunny possesses a certain amount of street cunning, when he tries to operate at a higher level he gets stuck. Cogent thoughts are so foreign to him they need a visa to get into his head. Bunny’s trouble is not just that he won’t shut up, but that he keeps talking when he has no idea what he’s trying to say. Theories on romance are best avoided by the hard of thinking, but Bunny is undeterred by his lack of mental firepower on the subject. He lectures Git on the nuances of women until they’re both thoroughly confused, and the audience is rolling around the place laughing.

Brendan Gleeson’s performance as Bunny is nothing short of hilarious, and if the emotional range he invests in this sentimental thug role is anything to go by, his work in John Boorman’s “The General” will be eagerly awaited by New York film audiences. Gleeson ran it close in the Best Actor category at the recent Cannes Film Festival, playing real-life Dublin gang leader Martin Cahill in the title role of that film, for which Boorman was named Best Director.

No less impressive in “I Went Down” is the supporting cast – Peter Caffrey as the captive whose inability to shut up finds him relegated to the trunk of the car for much of the journey, and Tony Doyle as the gang leader, a walking five o’clock shadow of tired hatred.

“I Went Down” is as low key as its title suggests, and much more so than the swaggering gunslingers portrayed in the ad campaign would have us believe. As screen criminals go, they’re probably the most inept that ever stepped. The film through which they bumble appears to be a loose, shapeless yarn, going nowhere in particular and in no hurry to get there. But this shaggy mutt of a story unfolds at its own pace, gliding with ease from ribald comedy to raw violence to nail-biting tension. McPherson evolves a complex storyline that is shot through with spot-on banter every meandering step of the way. He’s a smart enough writer to simultaneously quote Plato and make reference to his lead character’s jail time and sexual preferences, all in the innocuous title of the film, and too tongue-in-cheek about it to seem pretentious, or make it seem like he’s waving his UCD Masters Degree in Philosophy in our faces. Anyone who saw the recent production of his play “St. Nicholas” in New York couldn’t help but be astonished at the fluid quality of his monologue writing. In this, his first screenplay, his ear for dialogue is as finely tuned as his work for the stage, and he deftly resists the trap of putting overly polished words in the mouths of thick-tongued galoots like Git and Bunny.

But “I Went Down” is not entirely without flaws – anytime romance rears its beautiful head, McPherson gets docked a few points for lapsing into sentimental schlock. The romance subplot that opens and closes the film adds nothing to the overall plot, except to underline the fact that Git is a big sap, stuck on a girl who ran off with his best friend. This might pass unnoticed, but for the fact that it bookends the whole story. And the confession he makes in bed the morning after, to the girl who picks him up at a hotel disco, is the sort of rubbish guys make up to get girls between the sheets, not when they’re already there.

Finally, let the squeamish be warned: while the majority of the violence in “I Went Down” is about at prime time TV level, there are moments of genuine cruelty in this film. A horrific scene occurs in which the garrulous hostage Frank, gagged and fettered by his captors so that they can make the most of the facilities in a fine midlands hotel, is tormented by a hirsute English mathematics professor who cheerfully delivers an open university lecture on the joys of complex numbers. Close your eyes when this part comes.

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