It’s easy to see why John Boorman, the writer- director of ”The General,” wanted to make a movie about Martin Cahill, the infamous Dublin thief and gang leader who died in 1994. Cahill was no Robin Hood — he didn’t offer his spoils to the poor — but he attained a folk-hero notoriety that made him seem a hip rebel within the fearful and contentious atmosphere of modern-day Ireland. In ”The General,” Cahill is played by Brendan Gleeson, an actor of blustery ferocity whose greasy hair, piggy jowls, and lumpish, slovenly physique would make him look harmless were it not for the angry dark pools of his eyes. He’s like a junk-food addict with the soul of a sociopath.
As presented, Cahill is a uniquely ramshackle brand of criminal genius. He steals from pinball arcades, from private homes, from a jewelry store that’s as carefully guarded as a fortress, and yet, in each case, his methods are at once brilliant and comically slipshod. He improvises as much as he plans (the jewel heist takes place at the start of the workday, with the robbers casually evading a police car that just happens to stop by), and so his underworld success comes off as a product of pure stubborn defiance. It’s Martin Cahill giving the finger to the world.
Boorman, it’s clear, loves this man’s grungy untamed spirit, his fearless pug’s eagerness to take on everyone from the cops to the IRA. Visualized in coolly handsome docu-style black and white, ”The General” has a discipline and focus that’s been missing from Boorman’s work in the ’90s (muzzy-headed follies like” Where the Heart Is” and ”Beyond Rangoon”). As ”Deliverance” (1972), his finest film, demonstrated, he has always been a better craftsman than visionary, and watching this new one, you relish the larky details of Cahill’s larcenous crusades — the way, for instance, that he steals a cache of 17th-century paintings, including a pricey Vermeer, and then simply slices them out of their gilded frames.
That said, ”The General,” for all its panache, is ultimately an unsatisfying movie. The reason, I think, is that Boorman’s slightly puerile romanticization of Cahill keeps getting in the way of the reality he’s showing us. The movie celebrates a man who commits ”victimless” crimes, but it also shows Cahill to be a ruthless bully. At one point, he disciplines a gang member who he believes has stolen from him by nailing the poor fool’s hand to a snooker table. This mock crucifixion should be horrifying to watch, but the film treats it as just one more naughty escapade. I kept thinking of the way that Martin Scorsese, in ”GoodFellas,” was able to dramatize the brutal will of his mobster heroes as violent comedy and still judge it for the pathology it was. In Boorman’s hands, our perception of Martin Cahill doesn’t deepen as the movie goes on, and that’s because Boorman, on his most instinctive level, doesn’t want to understand Cahill; he wants to sanctify him. Cahill ends up inflated as a hero but, for all his feral bullishness, diminished as a man.