THE BOONDOCK SAINTS (1999)
Two Irish Catholic brothers become vigilantes and wipe out Boston's criminal underworld in the name of God.
There’s an interesting story behind The Boondock Saints, which is the sort of rags-to-riches Hollywood fable that gets others excited to try their own luck making a move. Troy Duffy was a bartender and bouncer who witnessed a drug dealer take money from a dead body, but decided to channel his anger by writing a screenplay about two vigilante brothers who decide to clean up the streets of Boston. A first-timer, his script nevertheless made it into some influential hands, and by 1997 Miramax had won a bidding war to have him write and direct for $450,000. The film itself was given a $15M budget, with Duffy’s band The Brood allowed to compose the soundtrack. Miramax even bought the bar Duffy worked at and went into co-ownership with him.
That story’s atypical of how these things go, more often than not, but it wasn’t all plain sailing for The Boondock Saints. Miramax pulled out of the project before pre-production technically began, citing issues with the casting and location scouting, demanding back Duffy’s $150,000 fee and their $700,000 development money. Franchise Pictures and Indican Pictures fortunately stepped in with $6M to make the film happen, on the proviso certain issues were resolved, and eventually cameras started rolling in Toronto.
Unfortunately, the Columbine High School massacre happened in April 1999 and changes the public mood about violence in movies, so when The Boondock Saints was released on 21 January 2000 it was only given a limited theatrical run with cuts. It grossed a measly $30,471 amidst terrible reviews.
It wasn’t until 2006, with help from Blockbuster Video (who released it as a DVD “exclusive”), that wider public screenings were organised for the unrated version Duffy always intended. It became a cult hit on rental (earning $50M for Blockbuster), although Duffy had unfortunately signed away his rights to all home video profits to Indican Pictures. Indeed, neither Duffy, the producers, or principle cast got paid until Duffy sued for royalties and the rights to the sequel. The lawsuit found in the director’s favour, with everyone receiving an undisclosed payout, and Boondock Saints II: All Saint’s Day was made and released in 2009.
The movie itself is a weird mess that’s been deservedly overlooked by most people, who weren’t teenage boys being introduced to this violent crime thriller instead of something like Pulp Fiction (1994).
Irish-American twins Connor (Sean Patrick Flanery) and Murphy MacManus (Norman Reedus) are a couple of rascally young men from Boston, Massachusetts, introduced attending Mass and genuflecting in front of a statue of Jesus Christ. While celebrating St. Patrick’s Day in their favourite pub (run by a guy with Tourette’s who evokes Father Jack from Father Ted), the MacManus boys get into a brawl with Russian mobsters- who threaten to close their favourite waterhole.
FBI agent Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe) is assigned to the case when bodies of said gangsters are found in a nearby alleyway, and so begins an unorthodox manhunt for the killers, who decide to off more evildoers after receiving a “calling” from God.
You can tell this is an amateur writer’s script, as it’s like a collection of ideas and stock characters thrown together in a stream of familiar sequences and events inspired by other films. It’s Death Wish (1974) by way of Tarantino knockoff, only with praying and Irish brogues.
Duffy experiments with non-linear storytelling, like Tarantino, but his own attempts are clumsy and unnecessary half the time. One recurring device is to have the MacManus’s poised for a big action set-piece, only for the screen to slowly fade to black, then fade up revealing the aftermath of what went down. Smecker then appears and explains what happened using Sherlockian deductions, allowing Dafoe to be incredibly eccentric and sound clever, before we eventually flashback to see that things went down exactly as he said.
I appreciate the idea, but it often just kills momentum and quickly grows tiresome. Thankfully, even Duffy gets bored of this trick, so towards the end he deploys a more enjoyable and visual way to achieve the same thing - with Smecker appearing in scenes with the MacManus twins, explaining what they did as we, the audience, see it happening for the first time around him.
I found myself growing accustomed to how cheap and weird The Boondock Saints felt for the first half-hour, and there were admittedly moments when it did some unpredictable things. Although, as I said, everything is a riff on something Duffy saw done better elsewhere. Very early on, the MacManus boys limp into a Boston police station wearing blood-smeared dressing gowns, intending to give themselves up to the cops, right after Smecker’s monologued about how difficult it’s going to be finding them. It’s the ‘John Doe gives himself up’ moment from Se7en (1995), reenacted with two people treated like folk heroes even by the cops for what they did.
Flanery and Reedus are okay as the leads, but only in terms of them looking attractive in black jackets and blue jeans while firing guns. They have a good chemistry together as brothers, which does help, even if each brother’s indistinguishable from the other and both characters are very dull.
Dafoe gets a variety of strange and ridiculous moments to chew on, including a very odd scene when he dresses in drag to gain access to a house. Billy Connolly also appears as notorious bad-ass Il Duke (“the Duke”), doing a surprisingly effective job subverting expectations of what he’s capable of. This might have been his own Taken (2008) moment, had anyone bothered to go see the movie.
The most memorable performance comes from one of Duffy’s real-life friends, David Della Rocco, who plays a henchman character of the same name who’s loyal to the MacManus’s and decides to help them find and eliminate more bad guys. Rocco didn’t do much before this movie, and hasn’t done much since, but playing “himself” certainly pays off. He dominates scenes he’s around through sheer force of personality, and because Flanery and Reedus can’t do much except quietly smoulder you’re glad of Rocco’s injection of brash silliness.
I can understand why The Boondock Saints became a cult for Americans teenagers in the mid-2000s. It has some familiar faces doing crazy shit, the gunplay is full-blooded, and there’s enjoyment in watching two handsome young guys fluke their way through a city-wide killing spree of various ne’er-do-wells. I only wish the villains were presented as truly villainous, but for the most part they do very little to warrant being slaughtered by Catholic vigilantes. I’m still confused why the inciting incident of the movie involved three Russians threatening to close a pub, rather than murder someone the MacManus’s cared for… but maybe that was an attempt at a joke about Irishmen being stereotypically keen boozers?
If you had no idea this existed and rented it in 2006, having not seen many of the films that informed it, maybe it would have stuck in your head. And when something gets lodged in your memory at an impressionable age, particularly something few others know and will condemn, it can become something you take to your heart and defend to the bitter end. But, truthfully, it’s weak.
Maybe one part of its appeal is that Duffy’s filmmaking is nothing to get excited about, but the workmanlike construction and a few successful flourishes are noble attempts. Sometimes the energy of a bad movie trying its best can be inspiring to wannabes, because you can see how it was put together and where its flaws are, but that gives it a ramshackle appeal. It makes you think making something like The Boondock Saints is achievable, because it has a homemade flavour—most noticeably whenever the head-banging soundtrack from Duffy’s own band drowns out a scene.
If The Boondock Saints encouraged a generation of people to seek out similar, better stuff from the 1980s and 1990s, that’s great… and if it got teenagers shooting Tarantino and John Woo knockoffs with their friends, that’s cool… but The Boondock Saints is still a bad movie.
writer & director: Troy Duffy.
starring: Willem Dafoe, Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus, David Della Rocco & Billy Connolly.