Fifty Dead Men Walking furthers the legacy of Jim Sheridan and other directors who have made a particular method of depicting the Irish Troubles their forte. With notable verisimilitude and a sizable degree of confidence writer-director Kari Skogland evokes the classical world of covert operations, entangled alliances and brutal bursts of gang violence that comprised life in war torn Northern Ireland for those most heavily involved in the struggles there. What she does not do, to the film’s ultimate detriment, is uncover a unique mode for doing so.
Instead, her adaptation of Martin McGartland’s autobiographical novel so thoroughly immerses itself in the mechanics of combat, in the question of who’s betraying whom and the intensity with which Martin (Jim Sturgess) embeds himself in the IRA apparatus that it never offers an adequate emotional outlet into the characters. Too often, it feels more like a facsimile of other more deeply felt movies than a distinct entity. Rife with superimpositions, sped up handheld camerawork and other artistic flourishes it provides the exact sort of hyper-visceral experience one expects of such fare.
The picture chronicles the determined recruitment of charismatic con man Martin by British Police officer Fergus (Ben Kingsley). Fergus assigns Martin to use his natural charm to infiltrate the upper reaches of the IRA and send spy reports back to the Brits. He quickly succeeds at doing so, thereby spurring the creation of friendships built on a deep rooted lie and risking the lives of his family, including newfound love Lara (Natalie Press).
Martin finds himself faced with the standard moral dilemma that accompanies this sort of scenario, as his growing attachment to many of the IRA members he meets while undercover calls into question his allegiance to his duties. The movie is at its best when it forgoes its painstaking depictions of the planning of attacks, the secret meetings between Martin and Fergus and other espionage details and instead concentrates on the human cost of doing such business. Skogland finds some poignant notes in her rendering of the contrast between the close bond Martin develops with his compatriots and his steadfast drive to deceive them, as scenes of burgeoning camaraderie are quickly balanced with shady betrayals.
Still, kinesis rules the day when it comes to the overarching aesthetic here. At its core, Skogland’s movie is a collection of frenetic set pieces with men and women clad in leather jackets plotting against and firing at one another, with a visual sensibility that often unfolds in unappealing shades of washed out greens and yellows. It’s exciting, to be sure, and succeeds admirably in its goal of presenting a certain sector of the Irish experience. But, though it makes overtures towards a larger exploration of the ambiguities of wartime and the collapsing boundaries between good and evil that accompany it, it does so without the intense human feeling of, say, the superior similarly themed recent release Flame & Citron.
The picture relies on a lot of close-ups and demands that its lead project a sense of mounting panic and desperation as the walls close in. Sturgess gives his all but he’s too subdued a personality and, with his handsomely coiffed short hair, pretty looks and slender frame, playing a character too conventionally imagined to resonate. There’s not enough of the sort of primal, method passion that a Daniel Day-Lewis, Marlon Brando or a young Kinglsey might have brought to the part. Unsurprisingly, Skogland’s star gets entangled in the conventional modes of representation that hamper Fifty Dead Men Walking and its look at a subject that demands a fresher point of view.