It took producer Lawrence Gordon six years to bring The Devil's Own (1997), a subdued political thriller, to the big screen. By then the original story by Kevin Jarre had undergone major rewrites to flesh out the supporting character of Tom O'Meara into a leading man and much of the film's IRA critique and criticism had been distilled into traditional Hollywood cloak and dagger nonsense that, at least in the final analysis, fails to come together except in fits and sparks.
The Devil’s Own stars then rising talent Brad Pitt as IRA assassin Francis 'Frankie' Austin McGuire. When he was just eight years old, Frankie watched as his Republican sympathizing father (Martin Dunne) was murdered by a masked Loyalist gunman while he sat at the head of the family's dinner table. Fast forward to 1992, and Frankie is now a Provisional IRA foot soldier whose blood lust has only intensified with time. After a harrowing showdown with British agent, Harry Sloan (Simon Jones) in the streets of Belfast, Frankie is taken to a safe house in the country and given a fake passport by fellow freedom fighter, Martin MacDuf (David O'Hara). Frankie's mission is to go to New York City and contact Billy Burke (Treat Williams) a black market gun runner, buy surface to air missiles and then sail away on a re-purposed boat to Ireland with his stash in tow.
The situation, however, becomes complicated when Frankie - rechristened Rory Devaney - is sent by his U.S. contact, Judge Peter Fitzsimmons (George Hern) to live in the home of NYPD officer Tom O'Meara (Harrison Ford). Tom is not a party to Frankie's plans nor is he aware of the oversized duffle containing a million dollars to buy the weaponry, given to Frankie by Peter, and that Frankie has hidden beneath some floorboards in Tom's basement washroom. Frankie lies to Tom about immigrating to the U.S. for a job as a construction worker but secretly meets up with Sean Phelan (Paul Ronan), a fellow IRA gunman who has purchased a broken down tug that will serve as his and Frankie's means of escape once the missiles have been purchased.
Frankie's perfect plan is hardly foolproof. In fact, his hard heart has already begun to soften towards Tom, his wife Sheila (Margaret Colin) and their family. Frankie's plight is further complicated by his attraction to Fitzsimmon's nanny, Megan Doherty (Nathascha McElhone) and later, when learning that Martin MacDuf has been murdered back home, thereby forcing Frankie to put his plans with Billy Burke on hold. Burke, who has already purchased the missiles using his own money is hardly impressed by the delay and sends his thugs to Tom's house to collect the money he is owed. Although Tom at first believes that this home invasion is a simple burglary gone awry, he gradually becomes more suspicious after Sheila takes inventory and realizes that nothing has been stolen. Tom's dander is raised again when he examines Frankie's room and finds that his couch, mattress and personal belongings have all been brutally cut open in the burglars obvious search for something.
Discovering the million dollars under his bathroom floor, Tom confronts Frankie, then places him under arrest with the aid of his partner, Edwin Diaz (Ruben Blades).Unfortunately for Tom and Edwin, en route to the precinct Frankie manages a daring escape that leaves Edwin dead and Tom wounded. At the morgue Tom is suspected by Harry Sloan of being an IRA sympathizer, placing his job and his freedom in jeopardy. Billy Burke holds Sean hostage until Frankie agrees to pay him for the missiles he has already purchased. But the trade is merely a rouse to get Frankie alone in an abandoned factory. There, Billy has one of his henchmen toss Frankie Sean's severed head. Billy reveals to Frankie the contents of a van full of missiles then attempts to assassinate him. In the resulting hailstorm of bullets Billy and his men are killed by Frankie instead.
Meanwhile, Tom confronts Fitzsimmons at his home during an elegant party, then narrowly apprehends Frankie in Megan's bedroom upstairs. Megan agrees to help Tom apprehend Frankie, but only if Tom promises not to hurt him. True to his word, Tom hurries to the abandoned pier where Frankie's tug is moored. But in the resulting confrontation both men take a bullet from each other's gun. While Tom's shoulder wound proves superficial, Frankie has been mortally struck in the stomach. He dies next to Tom, but not before revealing to Tom that he was, in fact, justified in his actions.
The Devil's Own is peculiar indeed. The last to be directed by Alan J. Pakula, it very much wants to be an action movie, but isn't. It aspires to be a political thriller, but isn't. It desperately attempts to resurrect the buddy/buddy genre with a parallel good cop/bad cop, good Irish/bad Irish subplot twist, yet here too it miserably falters. What we are left with then is a rather bizarre, occasionally probing morality play peppered with sporadic gun play and espionage. The film is a valiant attempt to explain away both sides of the Irish conflict with logic, compassion and understanding. It doesn’t work.
The greatest stumbling block in the screenplay by David Aaron Cohen, Vincent Patrick and Kevin Jarre is its’ attempt to make over one man’s crusade into an emotional bond between two. In Jarre's original draft, Tom O'Meara is a mere supporting character. However, Brad Pitt's suggestion that Harrison Ford play the part necessitated fleshing out the character to entice Ford's participation on the project. As such, there are several painfully out of touch sequences inserted into the story that have absolutely nothing to do with the central narrative. There is even a bit of good cop/bad cop cliché at play as Tom catches Edwin in a lie after Edwin shoots a fleeing suspect in cold blood while claiming the unarmed suspect shot at him first.
These scenes are meant to endear the character of Tom to the audience. He's a good man, a good cop and someone who would never under normal circumstances harbor a fugitive like Frankie. This conflict of conscience that evolves once Tom realizes Frankie's true identity is, of course, what fuels the latter half of the story. Yet, it's rather tragic the way Pakula allows the last act to degenerate into a series of protracted blood baths; between Tom, Edwin and Frankie; between Frankie, Billy and his henchmen, and finally, between Tom and Frankie. As the body count rises, one gets a sense of just how imbalanced the screenplay is. Even the film's ending, with Tom alone and steering Frankie's boat back to shore with Frankie's body in tow, suggests something of a misfired dénouement. It is an inevitable conclusion but lacks finality to truly satisfy on a pure entertainment level. In the final analysis, The Devil's Own is a film of many ambitions, none entirely realized in the finished product.
There's better news ahead. Sony Home Video's 1080p transfer is quite stunning. We get an image that is bright and vibrant with colors so rich and saturated that the film really does not look its age. Blacks are deep, rich and solid. Whites are pristine. Fine details are beautifully realized. Truly, this is a reference quality rendering. One simply wishes that Sony would invest as much time and effort in bringing so many of their more popular and enduring catalogue titles to Blu-ray (Little Women, Tootsie, The Remains of the Day, Places in the Heart, Sense and Sensibility, etc. etc. etc.).
The audio is a 5.1 DTS rendering that is aggressive during action sequences, but strangely quiescent elsewhere. Often dialogue sounds inaudible at a normal listening level. While cranking up the speakers corrects this disadvantage, it also is likely to blow out a few rear channels once the car chases and gunfire begin. There are NO extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)