Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

by Will Ross

Cult followings tend to fall into three categories: Those who mock their subject for its bizarre and awful craftsmanship (Plan 9 from Outer Space), those who enjoy a film not for its merits or flaws but for its bizarreness (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and those who adamantly praise a film that lacks mainstream appreciation (Fight Club). The Boondock Saints firmly fits into the third category, a stylish attack on the legal process and corruption, full of black humour and larger-than-life characters that have helped turn it from a disastrous obscurity into a widely recognized work of independent filmmaking.

But does The Boondock Saints belong in that category? To this day it remains on the fringe of widespread recognition, but, much like Fight Club, is certainly one of the better-remembered films of 1999. But better films were released in 1999 that are far less known (The Straight Story), and perhaps it’s those films’ turns for an adoring cult to push them into the public consciousness.

In that case, does Saints deserve a cult for being so strange, for running ludicrously contrary to any other cinema, independent or not, on the market? Not quite. Saints is not that strange, in premise, content, or characters. In fact, much of its plot follows convention: Its slow motion gunfights are illogically choreographed and nonsensically played; its dialogue relies on cursing and jokes more than subtlety and characterization; its fraternal protagonists have a shallow, winking camaraderie; its analysis of crime and legal procedure is shallow, simplistic, and often too far removed from reality (e.g. the mob bosses, who are too caricatured to be truly despicable).

What, then, distinguishes The Boondock Saints as a good film and makes it unworthy of inclusion in that first category, of hilariously bad flops?

I don't know, what?

Nothing, because The Boondock Saints is not a good film. In fact, it's not even passable entertainment. The Boondock Saints is a film so blatantly amateur and immature that it deserved to languish in utter obscurity on the bottom shelves of video stores, close to the dirt it bears such close resemblance to. Written and directed by former bartender Troy Duffy, this is clearly the work of someone who dreamed of the blue-collar-turned-cinema-hero story of Tarantino, but without Tarantino's knowledge of cinema and craftsmanship. It's a farce on nearly every level.

The Boondock Saints is about low class fraternal twins in Boston who, after killing two Russian mobsters in self-defense, receive a vision from God instructing them to act as vigilantes and cleanse the city of its criminals. The plot from this point on is paper-thin and serves merely as the backings for the action set pieces. (I don't worry about spoiling the "twist" when I say that someone is revealed to be the father of the protagonists, because it is not preceded by anything that would make it emotionally or logically workable at all. It's simply a cheap left-field twist worked into the third act, and it fakes humanity as poorly as the actors and filmmaking do.)

Those scenes are choreographed like a kid with his action figures, and while that sounds all fun and good, that and the excessive slow motion make the action boring. In fact, the film shows its technical ineptitude across the board. The cinematography is merely functional and often ugly. The editing is incomprehensible in action scenes and ruins any workable pacing it builds up with the godawful fades it uses as transitions.

The acting is uniformly laughable. Supporting characters rarely earn their place, merely serving as comic relief. The brothers are too arrogant to inspire sympathy, and neither they nor any other characters are smart enough to provide any deeper justification to the murders than "These are bad men and the legal system does not always catch them", nor insightful arguments into the ethics or pitfalls of vigilanteism, presumably because Troy Duffy is not intelligent enough to see through the surface of his own ideas.

Even the one proven talent in the cast, Willem Dafoe, cannot escape the narrow confines of Detective Smecker, a conflicted, homosexual lawman. His sarcasm and wisecracks, like the brothers', stand in for characterization or personal motivation. This, combined with the maybe-unintentionally homophobic presentations of his sexuality, ultimately means that it is he, torn between due process of the law and the simpler answer of vigilanteism, who should have been the thematic and emotional fulcrum of the film, whose dialogue and attempted command of his scenes crashes hardest of all. Along with casual homophobia, there is casual racism, meaning Boondock Saints isn't just bad, it's in bad taste.

Why, then, has the film gained the cult following it has? There are several reasons, all of them ironic and deeply flawed. First, cult followings of any film often see its lack of mass popularity or praise as an inherent plus, and gives them the sense of helping the underdog. Second, the movie's comedy (most of which falls flat) is edgy enough to make them laugh, because making jokes unintelligent has the benefit of making them very easy to write and laugh at. Third, the mob mentality that cult followings often have is enjoyable. Fourth, because they are lured in by flashy gunfights, dumb, cliché characters, humour that tells them when to laugh with shock instead of smarts, and a message that is far less intelligent than it pretends to be and convinces them they have somehow been enriched for watching it. In short, the lure of a simple, pandering Hollywood blockbuster. Coming from a cult movie, that's the most ironic part of all.

I realize that this film has a large, devoted following who may have a lot to add to what I've said. I invite their thoughts and discussion in the comments section.


N.W. Douglas said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for this piece. Finally we may be in complete agreement. I hate nearly every second of this film, for most of the reasons listed above, and a few you didn't mention. Perhaps its not insignificant in its success, showing how a direct-to-video audience can propel something to greater profits, but I wish that had happened to a worthier film. This apple is rotten to the core.

Anonymous said...

I have a different opinion, this movie made me feel more courageous in dealing with life struggles

¬Will Ross said...

In what sense? The two characters are more or less ruthless vigilantes with blatant disregard for legal rights and freedoms. Also, you said you have a different opinion, but you only mentioned what the movie made you feel rather than defending it against my criticisms.

Anonymous said...

This is guy from 2nd comment, I just stated that I felt more courageous after i watched this movie. The way I see it, this is my point of view, call it narrow, that disregard for legal rights, to take down criminals that will end up walking out on bail is brilliant. Sure im against killing, and no one should take the law into their own hands, but I love the plot of the movie. I dont care about the directing or quality of the film. I just stated what I thought of the movie. I didnt realize that it had to come with a explantion, or disagree with some of yours. Yeah I felt courageous after I watched this film, arent movies supposed to do that? Reflect on you? Or am I on the wrong review?

¬Will Ross said...

I don't think movies are supposed to do any one thing. Pidgeonholing an art form into some universal purpose just corrupts and cheapens artistic freedom.

I pointed out that you only said what the movie made you feel, and my point was that you didn't really contradict any of the issues I raised in my review with that statement. I wasn't looking for an argument, I was looking for you to justify your point.

The only thing contradicting my assessment was that you love the plot of the movie. I think the plot is scattered, twists logic, and loaded with clichés and lazy writing. Example: Killing people who "walk out on bail" just displays a complete misunderstanding of how bail works. Bail is not granted to everyone who has enough money, it's not a "Get out of jail free" card, and they are still required to stand trial. The film assumes that anyone with enough money is simply instantly allowed to leave prison.

You don't have to come up with an explanation, of course, but I love hearing fully formed opinions on movies and how they make people feel. I was just encouraging you to tell me the hows and whys as well as the what, because I'd like to hear it.

Regardless of whether you care about the direction and quality of the film, if it is well made, it simply works to its purpose better. That's why direction and quality matter: They produce a better end result. Judging the film's end result and how it produced it is the aim of my reviews.

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