Many cult films are called such because they’re under-appreciated gems with a fervent fan base. The critics might even like it somewhat, but really they just don’t understand. Most cult films however have at least some critic who will go to bat for it as something of a masterpiece.
“The Boondock Saints” is the rare example in which the film and its director are straight reviled by everyone who isn’t in the club. It’s a trash vigilante movie of utter style over substance, so go the naysayers, and one of the worst examples to grow out of the Quentin Tarantino copycats.
And yet here I am perched in the middle, an admittedly strange place to be with a film so polarizing as this. Everything bad about the film is also a distinctive characteristic. It’s ugly, excessive violence through and through, but it’s staged with elegance and operatic grace. It’s grossly overstated and sweeping in its tone but approaches its bigness unironically and fully to the point that it earns it. It’s full of trashy machismo attitudes and vigilante sensibilities, and yet the spiritual underpinnings and noble, Robin Hood heroes on a mission from God are a notable contrast from what’s typically associated with the vigilante and B-movie genre.
Much of the complaints of the film are that Director Troy Duffy leaves the controversial and moral implications at the door, and while another film would look at this violence with knowing irony the way Tarantino would, Duffy’s style is to embrace it 100 percent. That’s not to say however that Duffy doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing, and I’d argue that “The Boondock Saints” works completely on its own terms, perfect in its world of a procedural appreciation for murder cases and a no-nonsense take on good versus evil.
Those seeing it for the first time might groan at Duffy’s need to open the film with the Lord’s Prayer, or to shoot Ireland in sweeping, crane shots as operatic arias exist side by side crunching metal guitars. Then Willem Dafoe enters into the fray, traipsing into a crime scene and delicately examining evidence like he’s fucking Da Vinci.
Stuff like this looks awful like a guy overreaching as he strains for something more meaningful with his style, but it’s possible the un-ironic tone is entirely by design. There is awe, fascination and even beauty in the exploitative stuff. And when you see how fully Dafoe gives himself to the absolutely batshit crazy role of the gay, cross-dressing, egotistical, harried and obsessed FBI agent Paul Smecker, you suspect that Duffy might actually have a grasp over his actors and his movie in a way no one is giving him credit for.
The turn-around scene of “Boondock Saints” may be the first staged assassination attempt of the McManus Brothers. Just as everything’s about to get good inside the mafia hotel room, Duffy cuts away to the aftermath and Smecker’s assessment of what went down. In a way, the real surprise of the scene is not the violence itself but the brothers’ iconic Latin execution. How does the mindless meathead react to this scene, the guy who un-ironically embraces the otherwise campy catch phrases of Arnold Schwarzenegger kills? Something like this poses a moral question even if the movie doesn’t actually explore it.
As a result, the film’s most revealing scene about its message and morals is its credits sequence. Suddenly the newsreel, man on the street images form an echo chamber of praise and criticism for the film itself, knowingly deflecting any real attacks that might call the entire film pure trash. I wonder if this little coda would reflect differently if the film were based on a true story. Would the entire film play differently with that knowing acknowledgment of being a very liberal adaptation? And does this tacked on ending suddenly justify what Duffy has made us sit through? Because the director uses this scene to paint us into a corner, what’s the takeaway here, and does this actually work?
I hate to do it, but I might have to take the stance of many of that newsreel’s participants with a “no comment.”