Back when I was teaching college freshmen writing, I would often assign a paper in which students had to write about a movie (a review, an overview of critical reception, genre analysis, etc.) and I noticed that every semester, at least a couple of the young men would pick Boondock Saints for their subject. I'd never heard of the movie, probably because it got a very small theatrical release here in the States, but it became a cult hit on DVD and the freshmen boys loved it. I found over the years that my tastes and my students' tastes rarely coincided: back in the 90's, a student told me that, based on my love of the Beatles, he thought I might like Michael Penn's debut album March, and I did, very much, but that was the exception that proved the rule. So despite the rave reviews from my classes, I didn't rush out to catch the movie. My impression was that it was a violent, low-budget vigilante flick that I wouldn't like.
Ten years later, the movie cropped up on IFC and I decided to give it a whirl, mostly because I had discovered I liked the two lead actors (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus). Set in Boston, the film features Flanery and Reedus as working-class Irish brothers whose tangling with some Russian mob members results in a bloody aftermath (dead Russians in an alleyway). Just as the cops (led by a gay and very eccentric FBI agent, played with relish by Willem Dafoe, pictured above) are getting a citywide search for the killers into high gear, the two give themselves up. They plead self-defense (not entirely untrue) and get off, then decide to continue cleaning up their neighborhood while leading the cops on a merry chase. Dafoe slowly begins admiring the boys and near the end, even gives them explicit aid (by dressing up in scene-stealing drag). The narrative formula: we see the prelude to the killings, then the aftermath as the police collect evidence and Dafoe posits what he thinks happened, then we see the way the killings actually unfolded. The brothers, whose Catholic beliefs are important to the film, are joined by an Italian guy (David Della Rocco) who feels abused by his mob bosses, and there's an odd and not particularly well-thought-through subplot involving a legendary crime figure known as Il Duce (Billy Connolly, with almost no dialogue).
I think my students liked it for the violence, which is copious but not exactly record-breaking for a post-Tarentino crime film. I liked it for its style. The director, Troy Duffy, has a way with a camera and the film always looks good, even when the predictable slow-motion blood-letting starts. The script could be tighter--the plotting in the last half feels rushed and unfinished--but the characters are interesting and the acting is fine all around. Flanery and Reedus underplay nicely, balanced by Dafoe going gleefully over the top. The backstory to the production is soap-opera interesting, and after watching the movie, I suggest checking out the documentary Overnight about the rise and fall of the director; Duffy is undeniably a jackass, but one with talent, and Hollywood is presented as a place that will break all but the strongest or luckiest. I wish I could time travel and share my students' enthusiasm about this film with them.