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Pluck of the Irish

Here's welcome news from the Emerald Isle. The obsessions of Ireland's fledgling movie industry--religion, tragic politics and misty folklore--are nowhere to be found in Paddy Breathnach's I Went Down. There are no glorious views of the verdant Irish countryside, no half-soused balladeering about the good old days, no impassioned cries for social justice. You won't find a car bomb, a magic horse or an IRA slogan within three counties of the plot.

Instead, director Breathnach (Alisa) and the prolific 26-year-old playwright Conor McPherson (The Good Thief, Weir) have stretched the muscles of Irish filmmaking, opened it up, with a wry, smart crime thriller about a pair of bungling losers who are sent on a fool's errand by a hard-bitten Dublin gangster and wind up discovering a couple of things about themselves. It's a beautifully written movie (once you make peace with the mysterious slang and the Guinness-thick brogues), and the characters are as relentlessly vivid as anything Tarantino, Scorsese or the Coen brothers have dreamed up. Imagine an edgy film noir sent aloft on a lilt of poetry and a dark laugh and you've got the idea.

No wonder this modest little movie (budget: $3 million) won so many friends recently at film festivals in Edinburgh, San Sebastian and Sundance.

Meet the lads, then. Young Git Hynes (Peter McDonald) is just out of prison after taking the rap for a crime he didn't commit, but he's no hard case. He's baffled, he's sensitive and he can't control his moral streak: The poor fool on whose behalf Git slugs a couple of well-connected tough guys is the same fellow who's just stolen his girlfriend. Bunny Kelly (Brendan Gleeson) is Git's opposite. A beefy, loudmouthed thief with twin tastes for violence and chocolate bars, this angry bull wades fearlessly into trouble, but he rarely knows what to do when he gets there. He'll rob a gas station or steal a Mercedes on lightning impulse, but a little girl at the other end of a phone line can reduce him to babbling incoherence. When he reads his Western paperback, his lips move.

Bunny's plan in Cork? "We'll see when we get there."
These are the unlikely partners thrown together by their common debt to a lubricious hood named Tom French (Tony Doyle). To "put things right," French orders Git and Bunny down to Cork to collect 25,000 pounds from his old associate Frank Grogan (Peter Caffrey) and deliver Grogan into the hands of what French calls "a friendly face."

Simple enough, right? Of course not. While Git and Bunny travel south through some pointedly unphotogenic countryside, their mishaps quickly escalate from automotive breakdowns to herds of cows in the road to ferocious beatings in the back rooms of public houses. And when they nab the shifty Grogan, he starts talking them to death, applying his considerable charm as he sits handcuffed in his pajamas in the back of their car. His goal is to penetrate Git's conscience before Bunny's wrath explodes, then slip into the night.

Part buddy movie, part crime adventure, part black comedy, I Went Down sails along on a glory of hilariously surreal details: Bunny laboriously explaining to Git how a revolver works; the ever-slippery Grogan lashed to his hotel bed and, because he's fumbled away the remote control, doomed to watch "The Fundamental Theorem of Algebra" on TV; the boys slogging across a grimy peat bog en route to a misbegotten meeting with French's "friendly face"; the blathersome Grogan inundating a country policeman, of all people, with a torrent of small talk.

No sooner do we expect Breathnach's cutting edge to draw blood than he whisks it away with a dark joke on marital infidelity or gangster ethics. But every time we start laughing, he wipes the grins off our faces with the discovery of a corpse. Appalled by the gore-encusted skeleton, we're suddenly tossed aloft again by a silver-tongued witticism about raw sex. This, of course, is the Goodfellas method and, to a lesser degree, the Pulp Fiction method: Mix tones and moods and character traits--mix lightness and darkness--so deftly that we can't tell if we're watching angels or demons, nor do we care. The point is that we've fallen whole hog for Git and Bunny and their hostage, Frank. McDonald, Gleeson and Caffrey play off each other so brilliantly that you never want them to break up.

Meanwhile, that plot business about matching up two long-separated counterfeiting plates? Don't worry over it, because it's almost irrelevant to the brilliant trajectories of the movie's personalities. The night Git and Kelly tie Frank to his bed and set out in search of female companionship in the bar? Well, that's more cogent to the flow. Underworld cruelty and revenge? They creep into the picture, too, but they don't carry as much weight as the comedy. The whereabouts of one Sonny Mulligan, missing these 23 years? Not nearly as vital, it turns out, as the fact that Bunny is charging Git 100 pounds for every bullet he fires.

Fact is, Breathnach, McPherson and their gifted cast may have liberated Irish moviemaking from the hand-wringing themes of its youth once and for all. With its complex mixture of bawdy wit and criminal darkness, I Went Down, the highest-grossing Irish movie to date, may set other filmmakers free from Church and Mother and The Troubles--the inevitable next step for a young artist in an old country full of poets.

I Went Down.
Screenplay by Conor McPherson. Directed by Paddy Breathnach. With Peter McDonald, Brendan Gleeson, Peter Caffrey and Tony Doyle.

 
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