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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
In for the Duration
by Donald Levit

Fifty Dead Men Walking is not a more-is-better version of Matthew Poncelet dragging the last mile accompanied by Sister Helen Prejean. Instead, brought up in dialogue and in fashionable facile printed end-information, the greater number refers to the lives estimated to have been saved by Martin McGartland, played by Jim Sturgess.

It becomes apparent why Canadian director and producer Kari Skogland developed her script with no input from, or contact with, that still witness-protected author or his autobiography co-writer Nicholas Davies. Attempting the impossible of political, social and religious neutrality in Northern Ireland of twenty years ago, she chose “snapshots” from the 1997 book that might emphasize the individual developments and dilemmas of the two central figures. While the Troubles occupy significant background in stock footage and reenactments, focus is foursquare on Belfast hustler of stolen goods Marty and on British Intelligence agent Dean, code name Fergus (Ben Kingsley).

Shot on location in villages, the film is to be subtitled for theatrical release, a gimmick, really, because the softened learned accents are easy enough. Nor is the political situation hard to grasp for the purpose, even with many characters identified by brief titles but nevertheless rough to keep straight. In his early twenties, the protagonist is a non-believing Catholic, apolitical despite employment problems for those of the faith, fearless to foolhardiness facing armed riot police and soldiers of “occupation” as well as ski-masked freedom fighters-slash-terrorists.

Corralled after a back-alley chase, he is defiant to Constabulary and released. But astute Fergus recognizes his “bloody brilliant” cheek and familiarity with the lay of the land and who’s who, and recruits him as a mole. Dangling by turns patriotism, the saving of lives as contrasted to a visit to the morgue, and then cold cash and a free car, the agent reels in his man, as much as anything a consequence of Republican kneecapping of Frankie (Conor MacNeill).

Enrolled as IRA hitmen, Marty and lifelong buddy and sparring partner Sean (Kevin Zegers) rise rapidly, the double agent taken under the wing of higher-up Mikey (Tom Collins), an adherent of Bobby Sands’s “ounce of resistance is worth a pound of votes.” At their gym boxing ring, Marty is sworn in as a full member with a “you’ll end up dead or in jail, there’s no going back.”


The once cocky carefree hero’s life darkens with the deeds he witnesses, the tortures administered by Donovan Murphy (David Pearse), and near capture by police, interspersed with clandestine meetings with cynical “handler” Fergus to exchange information and money. Personal complications arise in a romance with Lara (Natalie Press). Pregnant and thrown out, she and Marty set up housekeeping for their child, Patrick, and another later on the way, and bicker about his activities while he frets about his family’s safety. A useless additional complication is introduced in the sexual attentions of IRA redhead Grace Sterrin (Rose McGowan) and their ferry trip to Scotland to confer with Libyan thugs.

The thrust, however, is the growing attachment between Marty and Fergus, who reiterates the fatal danger that each poses for the other. His government superiors warning against compromising emotional attachment, and though he himself cautions his source that “conscience is death,” Fergus sees in the younger man his own son estranged among “casualties of the business” and opens house and heart to him.

The working title Man on the Run may have been scrapped as too open a revelation of the outcome of this advertised spy “crime thriller,” but that has already been done by opening frames “somewhere in Canada, 1999.” Almost all the 117 minutes is needlessly cinema-fad flashback, one’s life flashing in front of his eyes. However true or embellished, the user-used/player-pawn/Fergus-Marty relationship is what counts, braced by Kingsley and Sturgess in a consideration of conscience in wartime. “Difficult stories of a political agenda blended with the human cost,” says Skogland in echo of Frank McGee’s observation on another endless war, “whether to destroy Vietnam in the effort to save it.”

(Released by Phase 4 Films and rated "R" for strong brutal violence and torture, language and some sexuality.)

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