Faith and Begorrah
The Boondocks Saints — and consequently the ignominious history of its writer/director Troy Duffy — is a parable worthy of Job, if the beleaguered Biblepawn were a consummately arrogant and fiesty shit-talking bag of hairy cocks. It’s a divisive film, inspiring either nodding praise or headshaking snorts of disgust. There seems to be no middle ground. What’s even more jarring is there seems to be no logical breakdown among admirers or detractors — it’s just as likely to share DVD shelf space with Reservoir Dogs as with Witless Protection. It’s indisputably a poorly made first film, with jagged pacing, gaping plot holes, and performances worthy of an Animaniac coke-bender. It’s a high-octane, f-bomb eradicated action-thriller muffled — damn near smothered — under the cassock of heavy-handed, blue-collar Irish Catholic moralizing. Yet, these very flaws are what make the film so endearing and original to me. Troy Duffy proved he’s got balls, if not a fucking brain in that shit head of his, and he’s earned every ounce of both the begrudging respect and overwhelming scorn that’s been heaped upon him. For it’s impossible to even deign to consider The Boondock Saints without fixing a scathing glare at its creator.
Troy Duffy fucking had it all. The Weinstein brothers (before they fell from grace) offered the Boston-bred bartender a lugubrious sum for his script about two Irish brothers who become avenging angels of death against the evil men of the seedy underbelly of the world. Not only was this virtual nobody getting paid sick bank for the script, he was also going to direct. Not only was this fucking ponce getting to direct his own script, but his shitty rock band The Brood was going to do the entire soundtrack and possibly get a goddamn record contract. Real names were considering the project: Mark Wahlberg, Bruce Willis, John Goodman, Kevin Spacey, Patrick Swayze. But Duffy pissed it away. Not just a trickle, but a fucking 15-beer, pull over the fucking car, my goddamn back teeth are floating, knock down a sequoia stream of piss. The most glorious part is the entire debacle was captured in the staggering documentary Overnight by Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith. Duffy couldn’t be humbled, even as the house was burning down around him, even as his own brother had to kick him out of their band, even as Harvey Weinstein refused to return calls and he became about as popular as a leper in a game of Twister. I give him credit: in a sell-out town, the man stuck to his guns. Right up to the point he turned and put those guns on himself, said a stock prayer, and blew off his own foot.
The Boondock Saints ended up becoming a cult hit. I remember hearing about it from my friend Matt Rittenhouse who said to me, “You see this yet? You gotta see it. Oh, man, you gotta see it.” This is pretty much how all people get introduced to Boondock Saints. It’s a dark secret, passed trench coat pocket to backpack in a dark alley or behind closed doors at a party. It adds to the mystery of the film. It joins Suicide Kings and Donnie Darko as something that someone tells you about in whispers. It’s a cast of people you kind of recognize, and then one actor whose presence is so odd you just feel compelled to check it out. Suicide Kings had Walken, Darko had Swayze, and Boondock Saints — god bless it — has Willem Dafoe.
Duffy might have had access to a marquee of stars, but I can’t imagine this film with anyone but the goddamn mutt’s medley of actors who eventually cobbled together to become the saints row. It’s like Kevin Smith if he were forced to shoot Chasing Amy with the original proposed cast set by Miramax: David Schwimmer, Drew Barrymore, and Jon Stewart. It might have made millions and millions of dollars, but it wouldn’t be remotely as classic a film as it was. The cast of Boondock Saints works because it feels like a first film cast — a few vaguely familiar faces doing this small project because they believe in it. It doesn’t feel studio assembled, and it certainly doesn’t feel like getting last dibs at the acting pool because nobody wants to get poisoned by the black sheep.
Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flannery play Murphy and Connor McManus, respectively. Draped in all the black trench coats, religious tattoos, and rosaries with Celtic crosses they can carry, these guys don’t look like intimidating killers. And that’s what works. The Boondock Saints aren’t hardboiled thugs, or tough guys, or ex-military. They’re two hyped-up fanatics devoted to a cause sent straight from God. They learn their tactics from television programs, with a fighting style that can best be described as scrapping. They join forces with their friend David Della Rocco, played cleverly enough by David Della Rocco, who is called The Funny Man. He’s a package boy for the Italian Mob, but mostly treated like their kicking post. He’s an oldhead still doing the shitwork, and he gets about a pube of the respect afforded Rodney Dangerfield by Don Rickles. He even gets beat-around by Ron Jeremy starring as a greasy fat guy named Vincenzo Lipazzi with a porno moustache.
The Saints fall into the vengeful Hand of God role very sloppily. A bar fight on St. Patrick’s Day against goons from the Russian mob gives them a taste for taking out the bad guys. All the sequences of violence are shown as aftermath and then Encyclopedia Browned out by FBI Agent Paul Smecker (Dafoe). I need to take a moment and just revel in the performance by Dafoe. It’s awesome, not in the gnarly Fast Times at Ridgemont High sense of the word, but in the fact that it is a performance and a role that inspires incredible amounts of awe. Dafoe chews scenery like a starved woodpecker made of termites, swallowing splintery chunks and spreading cheeks to squat out handcrafted Amish antiques. It’s a role that recalls Gary Oldman’s villain in The Professional, but also Nathan Lane in The Birdcage and maybe even David Bowie in Labyrinth. He’s frightening, but not menacing, more of a brain-meltingly unhinged. He dances through crime scenes to the sounds of opera, slaps his gay lovers because they want to cuddle, bullies a city detective into fetching him coffee and bagels, and at one point dons a wig and skirt in probably one of the most horrific cross-dressing scenes I will ever witness. You’re glad the two brothers are gunning down mobsters, if only to get Smecker on the scene so he can raise the movie above the dangerous level of mediocrity it dares to tread.
The rest of the film is pretty much the origin story of the Boondock Saints. They kill more and more evil men until the Italian mob boss Yakavetta sends Il Duce (Billy Connolly) after them. Billy Connolly has very little to do in the film, but by god does he do it well. I never would have pegged him for a believable assassin, but like Dan Akyroyd in Grosse Pointe Blank, he gets the job done, decked out like the AARP wing of The Matrix. It’s almost like a videogame where the two brothers blast their way through faceless goons. There’s no rhyme or reason or background other than these are bad men and God told them to do it. When Funny Man Rocco joins them, he guides the brothers and picks out the bad guys for them.
The script is extremely lazy. It’s basically Bible quotes alternating with scenes of men shouting “fuck” at each other — almost 246 times in a 110 minute movie, a quota even my sailor-on-fire mouth has yet to reach, you fucking fuckface fuckwrenches. Then every ten pages, Duffy makes sure to include “the Boondocks Prayer,” which still falls short in comparison to Ezekiel 25:17. The directing style is even more pedantic (hmm, yes, shallow also) with Duffy lovingly splattering slowmo blood while a chorus laments on the soundtrack. It would be inventive if it weren’t so goddamn stock repetitive. Seriously, every fucking scene of violence occurs in slow motion. If the film played in real time, it would have been 52 minutes long. If he cut out one third of the “fucks,” it could have qualified as a short film. The movie manages an epic feat; it jerks forward into a rather abrupt resolution and then sputters forwards into not just two, but three epilogue endings.
When he does it right, Duffy does it magnificently. When the Russians from the opening scene handcuff Connor to a toilet while they take Murphy five floors down to kill him, Connor goes berserk and literally tears the toilet — to the point of blood-dripping wrists — out of the floor. He carries it to the fire escape and drops it on one of the thugs while he leaps off the ledge onto the other thug. All in slow motion of course, but Duffy pulls it off. In the first encounter with Il Duce, we watch the old man and the two young Saints gun it out as Smecker stands in the shot miming the gunfire. Moments like these capitalize on the slow motion, Dafoe’s over-the-top carousing, the flashback replays.
While these scenes are spectacular, there’s still another 100 minutes of movie around it. Watching it now, in the wake of the ultra violence that cinema has reached, it’s almost become quaint by comparison. This film had the unfortunate consequence of being born in 1999, a year when a lot of folks were doing a lot of pretty phenomenal things. It got fluffed off in a January 2000 release in just five theatres under the auspices of the Columbine massacre since by two black trench coated vigilantes delivering justice from the barrel of a silencer. What was controversial at the turn of the century now seems practically tame and adorable just a decade later. The movie itself engenders a mostly light comic nature in spite of all the preaching and asscap-popping, which is why at the end I say it’s worth a watch.
The end of the film features mock documentary footage of people arguing over the righteousness of the Saints. Some people say right on, some say they’re terrible, and others offer no comment. Duffy foresaw the attitude people would have towards his film and I would almost give him credit for poking fun at himself, if he weren’t such a self-serving arrogant dick. My favorite moment is realizing Duffy and his bandmates cameo in the film in the opening bar brawl. They leap up from the stools like they’re going to duke it out with the Russian thugs, when in actuality, the brothers do all the work, and Duffy and his crew stand off to the side doing nothing. Now that’s a metaphor for this film if ever I saw one. That or the fact the bar is owned by a stuttering retard bartender with Tourette’s (who played Doc on “Fraggle Rock” — which is why the character is named Doc).
Duffy finally finished his follow-up almost ten years later. It’s due out the first of November, and I have low hopes for it. Practically the entire cast has come back, with the notable and regrettable exception of Willem Dafoe. Since he held the film aloft for me, I’m worried. Particularly when a gander at the cast list shows campy additions (Judd Nelson, Peter Fonda as The Roman) and/or variations that look like they went The Whole Ten Yards route: replace the bad guys with family members or distant relations of the bad guys. I sincerely doubt Duffy sees this as humbling, but rather as a fuck you to all the people who thought his scrappy Irish ass couldn’t make it anymore. The Weinsteins have fallen from grace, his documentarian detractors have done nothing since Overnight, and nobody will let Willem Dafoe babysit their kids. If Duffy won, it’s in the twelfth round with brain damage and career-ending injuries.