Boondock Saints (The) (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Video
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (16th July 2018).
The Film

The Boondock Saints (Troy Duffy, 1998)

In Boston on St Patrick’s Day, the McManus brothers – Connor (Sean Patrick Flanery) and Murphy (Norman Reedus) – visit their church and listen to the priest’s sermon before spending the day at work at a meat packing plant, where they come to blows with a colleague. After work, Connor and Murphy visit their local pub, McGinty’s, where they spend time with their friends – including low-ranking member of the Italian Cosa Nostra, Rocco (David Della Rocco).

McGinty’s is under threat of closure because the Russian mob has been buying up the neighbourhood. Two Russian gangsters enter McGinty’s and demand that the landlord close shop for the day. To second generation Irishmen on Saint Patrick’s Day, this is a red rag to a bull, and a barfight ensues in which the two Russians are injured and humiliated.

The next day, the two Russians are found dead in an alleyway: they followed Connor and Murphy home with the aim of seeking retribution, but the McManus brothers turned the tables on their attackers. Local police detective Greenly (Bob Marley) is superseded in the investigation by visiting FBI agent Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe). Using intuitive methods of detection and whilst listening to operetta on a Walkman, Smecker walks through the crime scene and quickly comes to the conclusion that, contrary to Greenly’s beliefs, ‘This was no gangland assassination [….] This has “personal” written all over it’.

Connor and Murphy turn themselves in. Smecker is intrigued by these two unassuming working class brothers who are multilingual, showing themselves to be fluent in Gaelic, Russian, French, Italian and German. Smecker believes that the brothers acted in self-defence and has them released. The media hail them ‘saints’.

Connor and Murphy have the dead Russians’ pager, which allows them to track the Russian mob to its headquarters in a lavish hotel room. They make plans to strike at the Russian mobsters in their lair. Meanwhile, Rocco is called to a meeting with his boss ‘Pappa’ Joe (Carlo Rota), who sends Rocco on a suicide mission to assassinate the head of the Russian mob. Connor and Murphy accidentally come across a winning method of attack when they fall through the ceiling suspended by a rope that has become entwined around their ankles. The brothers triumph over the Russian gangsters; Rocco arrives immediately afterwards and, realising he has been set up by Pappa Joe, who expected Rocco to be killed during his mission, he proposes that he and the McManus brothers team up to strike back at the Cosa Nostra. They begin by assassinating Vincenzo Lipazzi (Ron Jeremy) in a strip joint called the Sin Bin.

Realising that Rocco has something to do with the assassinations, Pappa Joe asks retired Mafia underboss Augustus (Carmen DiStefano) to put him in touch with Il Duce (Billy Connolly). Il Duce has spent most of the past thirty years in prison; the mob use him ‘only when things get totally fucked’ (in Augustus’ words) because Il Duce enjoys ‘clipping wise guys’.

With Il Duce on their tail, Connor and Murphy work their way up the Mafia food chain with the intention of assassinating Pappa Joe. However, Smecker’s investigation takes him closer and closer to the brothers, and with each crime scene he investigates, Smecker becomes increasingly sympathetic to their worldview.

The story behind the making of The Boondock Saints has become the stuff of Hollywood legend, as told in the 2003 documentary Overnight: Troy Duffy wrote the script whilst working as a bartender and part-time musician, in response to witnessing an incident involving a drug dealer and a woman’s corpse outside Duffy’s apartment. (The dead woman was being wheeled out of the drug dealer’s apartment when the dealer shoved his hand into her boot and shouted ‘That bitch has got my money!’) Duffy submitted his script on spec to New Line Cinema in 1996, and in the post-Pulp Fiction era, when many studios were looking for a ‘new’ Tarantino, Duffy’s script – non-linear and laden with profanity – became a hot property, falling at the centre of a bidding war between rival studios. The winners of this bidding war, Miramax bought the script for a reputed third of a million dollars, planning to make the film to a budget of $15 million and with Duffy directing (though by all accounts, Duffy had no prior experience as a film director even on short films). At one time or another, numerous stars were pencilled into the lead roles: Stephen Dorff, Ethan Hawke and Mark Wahlberg were all considered for roles as the McManus brothers, and Kenneth Branagh, Patrick Swayze, Sylvester Stallone and Bill Murray, among others, were considered for the part of FBI agent Paul Smecker. However, Miramax dropped the project before pre-production began, a decision cited as being in response to issues faced in casting and finding locations, but reputedly owing to Duffy’s behind the scenes arrogant assholery. (In Overnight, Duffy is seen calling Kenneth Branagh a ‘cunt’.)

Following Miramax’s abandonment of The Boondock Saints, Duffy approached smaller indie production companies and found a buyer in the form of Franchise Pictures, a then-relatively new company that budgeted the film at a much lower $6 million. When production was completed, the film struggled to find a distributor owing to the cultural fallout from the school shooting at Columbine: violent films and video games had been blamed by the media for Harris and Klebold’s actions, and it seemed that no distributor wanted to face the backlash of releasing a hyper-violent picture which featured black clad assassins who saw themselves as avenging angels. Cut for an ‘R’ rating from the MPAA, the film had a very limited theatrical release in the US in 2000, playing on only five screens across the country, but acquired a cult following upon its initial VHS release (for a year, exclusively to Blockbuster) and, when the contract with Blockbuster expired, subsequent release on the then-new DVD format (see Stevens, 2016: 16). In the UK, it was released straight to home video. In 2009, Duffy directed a straight-to-video sequel, The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day, following a protracted legal battle between Duffy and Franchise Pictures over royalties from the film’s home video releases and the rights to the sequel.

Critical consensus regarding The Boondock Saints has generally been poor, the film being seen as riding on the coattails of Tarantino et al: the film adopts the hyperkinetic violence and non-linear narrative style of Tarantino’s 1990s pictures. Like Tarantino’s films themselves, The Boondock Saints also seems to emulate the paradigms of Hong Kong’s Heroic Bloodshed movies, especially the films of John Woo, with its balletic use of Peckinpah-esque slo-mo and its two-handed shootouts (now a staple of many Hollywood films, thanks to the manner in which they have been channelled through Tarantino and his followers, and in Woo’s own incursions into Hollywood filmmaking in the form of films such as 1997’s Face/Off). Elsewhere, The Boondock Saints takes a concept from Woo’s The Killer (1989) and uses it to underpin many of its key sequences: in a key sequence in The Killer, Woo employed parallel editing and a mobile dolly-mounted camera to connect Danny Lee’s detective’s investigation of the scene of a shootout with the actions of Chow Yun-Fat’s hitman (who Lee’s character is investigating), the rhythms of the editing suggesting an empathy between the two. The Boondock Saints employs similar parallel editing and mobile camerawork, across a significant number of its sequences, to likewise connect FBI agent Paul Smecker with his prey (the McManus brothers), eventually resulting – like The Killer before it – in an alliance between the lawman and the outlaws during a bloody shootout with a gang of mobsters. Furthermore, The Boondock Saints closes on a montage of simulated new broadcast footage in which various members of the public either praise (‘I love the Saints, man: they’re doing a great job!’) or equally vociferously denounce the actions of the McManus brothers. Here, Duffy seems to be paying direct homage to the similar sequence in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) (‘I love Mickey and Mallory! They’re so cool!’), though this technique has been emulated in many films since (for example, at the denouement of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, 2012).

As the McManus brothers, Reedus and Flanery are given relatively little to do in between the film’s outbursts of violent mayhem, David Della Rocco’s hysterical performance as a low-ranking numbers runner acting as a comic foil for their blank-faced stoicism. The film is enlivened by Dafoe’s operatic performance as Smecker, a typically eccentric role for the actor: Smecker is a gay FBI agent who responds to his lover’s request for a wake-up cuddle with the sharp assertion, ‘A cuddle? What a fag!’

The film begins with a sermon being delivered in a church, during which the priest references the case of Kitty Genovese, the New Yorker who in 1964 was stabbed to death whilst more than thirty of her neighbours watched and neither intervened nor called the police. As the priest ends his sermon (‘Now, we must all fear evil men, but there is another form of evil we must fear most: the indifference of good men’), the McManus brothers exit the church in dramatic slow-motion that imprints the priest’s words upon our image of them.

The Boondock Saint is relatively unambiguous in its depiction of the McManus brothers as heroes: despite the outrageous mayhem and violence that they cause, the film suggests that their retaliatory violence is necessary. (In this sense, the film has some similarities with frontier Westerns that explore the notion of vigilantism and retaliatory violence.) At night, after turning themselves in for the deaths of the two Russians, the brothers awake simultaneously, one of them asserting ‘Destroy that which is evil…’, and the other continuing ‘… so that which is good may flourish’. Later, they rationalise their violence to Rocco: ‘Do you know what I think is psycho, Roc? It’s decent men with loving families. They go home every day after work and they turn on the news. You know what they see? They see rapists and murderers and child molesters, and they’re getting out of prison’. Murphy chips in: ‘Mafiosos caught with twenty kilos, getting out on bail the same fucking day’. ‘Everywhere, everyone thinks the same thing’, Connor adds, ‘that someone should just go kill those motherfuckers’.

Initially, Smecker is unsympathetic to the brothers, but as his investigation continues he becomes increasingly empathetic with them. After the two Russians are found dead in the alleyway, Smecker displays his dismay that the story has been leaked to the press: ‘That’s all we need now’, he says, referring to sensational press stories ‘making these boys out to be superheroes triumphing over evil [….] They’re just two ordinary men who were put in an extraordinary situation, and they just happened to come out on top’. Smecker adds that the ‘general consensus is they’re angels. But angels don’t kill’. During Smecker’s investigation of one of the crime scenes, past and present collide as Smecker sees himself fighting alongside the McManus brothers. An atheist and a homosexual, Smecker nevertheless experiences a turning point in a Catholic confessional, after having followed the devoutly religious Connor and Murphy into their church. There, Smecker reflects to the priest (who is being held at gunpoint by Rocco, who against Murphy and Connor’s wishes plans to assassinate Smecker) that ‘I put evil men behind bars, but the law has miles of red tape and loopholes for these cocksuckers to slip through. I found out that there are these two guys who fix the situation with an iron fist as if they had God’s permission. In this day and age, I believe what they do is necessary; I feel it is correct [….] I believe that these young men are right [….] all the things I wish I could do, these guys are doing [….] I am a man who’s supposed to uphold the law’. The priest responds by telling Smecker gnomically that ‘The laws of God are higher than the laws of man’. Smecker exits the church with a new sense of awareness and a commitment to helping the McManus brothers in their violent crusade against lawlessness.

The Boondock Saints features some very well-staged action, including the memorable sequence in which, inspired by films and television, the brothers climb above the suspended ceiling in the hotel room in which the Russian mobsters are holding court; Connor and Murphy accidentally fall through the ceiling, their ankles caught in the rope Connor insisted on bringing, against Murphy’s wishes, as the brothers take advantage of the element of surprise to decimate the heads of the Russian syndicate. This is prefaced by the brothers visiting an armoury and selecting their weapons. Connor tells Murphy they need some rope because ‘Charlie Bronson always has it’: action heroes in films, Connor reasons, always have rope with them and find a use for it. ‘This isn’t a movie!’, a doubting Murphy responds. However, the rope proves an essential element of the brothers’ kit, and during his investigation of the crime scene Smecker marvels at the ingenuity of the brothers’ plan of attack. ‘Television is the explanation for this’, Smecker tells Greenly and the other detectives, ‘You see this in bad television. Little assault guys creeping through the vents. That James Bond shit never happens in real life’.


Video

The Boondock Saints was originally released in the US in a version cut for an ‘R’ rating; this version trimmed some of the film’s moments of violence (the hotel shootout, the climax in Pappa Joe’s house) and previously released on DVD in the UK in 2002.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray release contains the director’s cut of the film, unrated in the US, with a running time of 108:26 mins. Using the AVC codec, the 1080p presentation takes up 34Gb of space on a dual layered Blu-ray disc.

The film is presented in its intended aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Shot in Super 35, the 35mm colour photography is presented fairly well in this HD presentation. A fairly good level of detail is present throughout the movie, though this would seem to be an older master, most likely sourced from an interpositive (given the burnt-in subtitles for some of the non-English dialogue). Contrast levels are pleasing, and midtones are strongly defined whilst shadows show a sense of gradation between light and dark. Colours are natural, consistent and stable. There is little to no damage worth speaking of. A natural grain structure is presented but seems to be slightly muted. This presentation would seem to be commensurate with the presentation that the film has received on Blu-ray in the US.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.

Audio

Two audio options are present: (i) a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track; and (ii) a LPCM 2.0 stereo track. Both tracks are clear and display good depth and range, though on the LPCM 2.0 stereo track some of the gunshot effects are more ‘punchy’ and impactful. Dialogue is mostly in English, but there’s a small amount of dialogue in Gaelic, Russian, Italian, French and German. Some of this non-English dialogue is presented with burnt-in English subtitles. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are presented for the English dialogue. These are easy to read and mostly accurate, though there are a couple of instances in which the dialogue seems to be transposed slightly incorrectly. (For example, at one point the phrase ‘dearest cost’ is written in the subtitles as ‘clearest cost’.)

Extras

The disc includes:
- An audio commentary by Troy Duffy. This commentary from Duffy has been seen on the film’s previous DVD and Blu-ray releases. Duffy offers his version of events vis-à-vis the production of the film. Duffy sometimes states the obvious and is often quite descriptive of the onscreen action, but there are nevertheless some fascinating tidbits of information to be gleaned from this track.

- An audio commentary by Billy Connolly. Again, this has appeared on the film’s previous DVD and Blu-ray releases. Connolly’s role in the film is limited, but he’s an engaging character to listen to, and he offers an interesting perspective on the picture that differs from Duffy’s.

- Deleted Scenes (with ‘Play All’ option/19:11). Sourced from a timecoded videocassette, these deleted scenes are in rough shape.
o ‘Rozengurtle Baumgartner’ (2:59). An extension of the scene early in the film, in which Murphy and Connor come into conflict with the colleague they are seen punching in the final cut of the picture. Baumgartner is introduced as ‘a big fat angry lesbian’ who has been hired on an ‘affirmative action’ policy.
o ‘Mom Calls from Ireland’ (5:52)
. The brothers are seen receiving a phone call from their mother in Ireland; in a drunken state, she rants about their absent father and threatens to commit suicide before mocking her sons’ panicked response.
o ‘Greenly’s Theory’ (3:09)
. Detective Greenly offers an utterly incorrect theory about the deaths of the two Russians in the alleyway, prior to Smecker’s arrival on the scene.
o ‘Respect Is Earned, Never Given’ (0:28)
. A short dialogue scene between Greenly and Smecker.
o ‘Get a Hold of Yourself’ (0:49)
. After killing the Russians in the hotel, Connor and Murphy tell David to ‘get a hold of yourself’.
o ‘Getting Out of the Porno Business’ (1:02)
. Visiting the crime scene at the Sin Bin, Smecker comforts a female witness, who tells him she’s ‘getting the fuck out of the porno business’.
o ‘Smecker’s Confession’ (4:55)
. Smecker’s conversation with the priest in the confessional is here presented in an extended form.

- Outtakes (1:33). These are again presented from a timecoded videocassette copy.

- Red Band Theatrical Trailer (2:13).

Overall

Technically very well-made, The Boondock Saints is hampered by a script which could have benefitted from some careful doctoring; furthermore, some of the directorial choices by Duffy, seemingly an utter novice at filmmaking, which ape too heavily conventions of early/mid-1990s cinema (Tarantino-esque dialogue, non-linear narrative, blackly comic violence and counterpunctive use of music, John Woo-style staging of action), result in a picture that, when it was released in 2000, felt like a case of ‘too little, too late’. (Had the script gone into production in ’96 or ’97 and been released a year or two earlier, The Boondock Saints might have felt a little more ‘fresh’.) Nevertheless, in the years since its initial release, the picture has found a strong cult following thanks to its hyperkinetic violence and some of the more quotable dialogue.

The protagonists (Connor and Murphy) are given surprisingly little to do, and are outshined by Dafoe’s superbly eccentric performance as Smecker. There are some moments of outrageousness, especially when Smecker dresses in drag to gain entrance into Pappa Joe’s house and gives one of Joe’s guards a quite graphic open-mouthed kiss. As this scene might suggest, the humour in The Boondock Saints is often crude and juvenile, and mixed with the ultraviolence of the action setpieces, it’s easy to see why distributors shied away from the film in the wake of the Columbine school shooting. Nevertheless, viewed twenty years after its production, the violence in The Boondock Saints doesn’t seem all that graphic and has been surpassed in numerous film and television programmes since. What makes the film, aside from Dafoe’s performance as Smecker (and Billy Connolly’s turn as Il Duce), are its keenly-staged setpieces and some of its ancillary characters (the stuttering landlord; Ron Jeremy’s sleazy mobster).

The film will continue to divide audiences. Nevertheless, Arrow’s release brings The Boondock Saints to HD home video for the first time in the UK, and the release is pretty much the same as the US Blu-ray release from Fox – but sans the inclusion of the ‘R’ rated theatrical cut of the film. (The ‘R’ rated version of the movie is pretty redundant, to be fair.) It’s a shame that some new contextual material hasn’t been included: Overnight would have very welcome, for example. Nevertheless, a solid presentation of the main feature is included – even if it seems to be based on an aged master – and the contextual material is fair (albeit nothing that hasn’t been seen on previous DVD/Blu-ray releases of this film).

References:
Stevens, Andrew, 2016: Producing for Profit: A Practical Guide to Making Independent and Studio Films. London: Routledge

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