The Devil’s Own is a lukewarm and insecure movie about violence and moral dilemmas — the usual Hollywoodization of Big Themes. Its brave stance is threefold: (A) that revenge doesn’t solve anything; (B) that the Irish troubles are really confusing; and (C) that in a battle between two male stars, the guy with the biggest … um … box office will win. This is why we don’t fear for Harrison Ford’s life, but we do expect Brad Pitt to go to the great phony-accent school in the sky.
Pitt, whose erratic lilt is more Irish Spring than Irish, is Frank McGuire, an IRA terrorist who leaves Belfast and flees to New York under the name Rory Devaney. For reasons I didn’t quite buy, Frank finds lodging with Tom O’Meara (Ford), an Irish-American cop with a beautiful wife (Margaret Colin) and three daughters. Tom, apparently unspoiled by his 23 years as a New York cop, welcomes this stranger into his home and is delighted to have a housemate “who can pee standing up.”
Despite Frank’s urinary talents, he soon gets in hot water. Which is a shame, because the domestic stuff in The Devil’s Own is rich and funny. It’s a hoot to see Harrison Ford navigating around three noisy girls, and he has an easy rapport with Margaret Colin, a seriously underrated character actress thrown away (along with everyone else) in Independence Day. And Pitt is touching in the moments when Frank embraces this family life — everything he didn’t have and can never have.
But then the movie falls back with a sigh of relief into a conventional gun-running plot, wherein Frank tries to get weapons to send back home; the deal goes bad, and Frank’s enemies invade Tom’s home. That scene, like every other bit of violence in the film, is crisply staged and genuinely alarming. But then Tom ships his wife and kids off to her sister’s house (why do movie wives always have a sister to stay with when things get dangerous?), and Margaret Colin and her entertaining girls vanish, taking much of my interest with them.
What’s left is a lot of moral grappling, not all of which has one iota of relevance to the plot. For instance, Tom’s partner (Ruben Blades) shoots an unarmed guy in the back, and Tom undergoes a huge crisis about covering up the mistake. The partner may or may not have known that the guy had thrown away his gun, and may or may not have fired in vengeful anger (the guy had shot at them). This subplot may or may not be there to suggest that police work can be as ambiguous as Belfast warfare, and I may or may not think that all it does is slow the movie down. Why not have Tom be the cop who snaps and shoots the unarmed man? Then this tortured subplot would mean something.
Ford, our great American man of the movies, gives one of his better performances here — nearly trembling with outrage and despair at how his surrogate son Frank has betrayed him — and it’s a pity the script, which was notoriously sketchy when shooting began and presumably didn’t improve much, just leads him into a dumb confrontation with Brad Pitt on a boat. For all its hefty brooding (Alan J. Pakula, a master brooder, directed), The Devil’s Own is as muddled as the Irish troubles it virtually ignores, and the characters are stuck in the mud.