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Michael Collins

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Michael Collins

Starring: Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn
Director: Neil Jordan
Rated: R
RunTime: 132 Minutes
Release Date: October 1996
Genre: Drama

*Also starring: Stephen Rea, Alan Rickman, Julia Roberts, Ian Hart, Brendan Gleeson, Stuart Graham, Sean McGinley, Gerard McSorley, Jonathan Rhys Myers, Charles Dance

Review by Steve Rhodes
3 stars out of 4

Quick, name some good films about the American revolution? Hmm, couldn't name any? For those of you who incorrectly listed REVOLUTION (1985), remember I said "good" films. Granted the Internet Movie Data Base does also list a few obscure, older ones, but basically there aren't any.

Thanks to director Neil Jordan (MONA LISA, THE CRYING GAME, and INTERVIEW WITH A VAMPIRE), there is a good one about the "Irish" revolution. Taken from the perspective of a key Irish terrorist and later peace broker, the film is known simply as MICHAEL COLLINS.

MICHAEL COLLINS is an excellent, but frustrating film. The acting is brilliant as is the direction. The film's downfall lies in the script, also by Neil Jordan. Tactically the script works, but not strategically.

After a three paragraph written introduction to past Irish history, the viewer is thrust into the thick of the 1916 Easter Rising where the battle is fully engaged. Certainly Irish historians will have no problems, but I posit that average movie goers will feel like they turned on the TV and found themselves starting off in the middle of a great mini-series with only a few sound bites from the narrator to give them the necessary context and motivation. There is fat in the show that could have been trimmed in favor of more historical perspective in the beginning.

Similarly, most of MICHAEL COLLINS leads up to the signing of the treaty with England, but it does not end cleanly there. Jordan decides he must show all of the events after that up until Collins death. The problem is that the show is already about two hours long at that point so he rushes through a sketchy outline version of the end that leaves you exhausted and confused. Quick incident after incident are thrown at the audience in a montage that feels like we are see nothing more than the trailers for MICHAEL COLLINS PART II.

I have to get one final problem out of the way so I can concentrate on the positive aspects of what is at its core an excellent movie. Hollywood decided that they had to have a sex interest in the film so they signed Julia Roberts to play the role of Michael Collins's girlfriend Kitty Kiernan.

Without exception, the film would be stronger if every scene Roberts was in, would have been left on the cutting room floor. The show's great momentum grinds to a halt every time she appears. Her part is the fat I alluded to earlier. Maybe they could have left her name on the marquee and just put her picture on Collins's desk, but not forced her to deliver a bunch of meaningless lines, including my favorite bit of drivel, "so which one of you gunslingers is going to ask me to dance." Roberts should have politely collected her check and left.

     Now onto the brilliance of the rest of the picture.

"What happens next time?" asks Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn) as they surrender at the end of the Easter Rising. "Next time, Harry, we won't play by their rules. We'll play by our own," reassures Michael Collins (Liam Neeson) with plans to switch to terrorism and away from open warfare.

When Eamon De Valera (Alan Rickman) is captured we see him writing a letter from prison with the sun streaming in to bless writings. Chris Menges's emotive cinematography makes him look like St. Francis composing his pieties. Later when Collins addresses a crowd, the images are so strong that you want to leap out of your seat and join the cause. The cinematography is Academy Award nomination material as is the acting by Neeson and by Stephen Rea as Ned Broy, who was Collins's personal spy in the British intelligence service in Dublin.

Neeson's portrayal of Collins as a terrorist's terrorist is unflinching. He is willing to kill anyone at any time to support the revolution. His only concern is not to waste precious bullets. Nevertheless, Neeson is so attractive and compelling, that regardless of whose side you were on when entering the theater, you are likely to side with Collins during the show. Neeson gives such an involving performance that will find yourself pleased every time another British soldier or intelligence officer is murdered.

Collins wants to wage his war with fear so he starts a mass campaign of slaughter against the British rulers, specially the British "G-men" in Dublin. There are British who are sympathetic to the Irish cause. While in Lincoln prison back in England, De Valera is told by the chaplain (Aidan Grennell) that, "I can't understand your politics, but I appreciate your integrity."

The show argues effectively that De Valera had little integrity and that he was the Machiavellian figure of the Irish revolution. Specifically, it claims, among other things, that he sent Collins rather than himself to negotiate with Britain because he knew that the best result that could be hoped for would be derided by the Irish people. If someone else could be blamed, then his hands would be clean. Rickman gives a wonderfully slimy performance.

Collins is drawn as a complex man who proclaims, "I want peace and quiet. I want it so much I'd die for it." He loathes the British, telling Harry, "I hate them for making hate necessary, and I'll do what I can to end it."

To make sure you take the Irish side, the film includes frequent scenes of torture and murder by the British forces in Dublin. Typical of the G-men lines while torturing is the one where they say, "The problem with the Irish is that they'll sing at the drop of a hat, but ask them to talk and they won't."

I accepted the film lock, stock, and barrel as accurate until a scene where the British troops drive an armored car into a rugby match for no reason and begin mowing down innocent people in the stands with machine guns. After that dubious bit of historical accuracy, I begin to question all of my previous assumptions about the film. Maybe the incident did happen in exactly that way, but I find it a bit hard to believe.

MICHAEL COLLINS runs 2:13, which is too short for its attempted scope, but the film would have been better if it were more tightly focused in which case it should have been shorter. The movie has an R rating. There is bloody but not sensationalized violence, lots of uses of the F word, but no sex or nudity. The show should be fine for teenagers. Although the picture could and should have been much better, I liked MICHAEL COLLINS and recommend it to you. Although it is uneven, I average out its rating to ***.

Copyright 1996 Steve Rhodes

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