"Hey, you gotta pay your dues before you pay the rent." —Pavement, "Range Life"
Troy Duffy had reason to feel confident. Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein, the famed kingmaker of independent icons like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, read Duffy's script for The Boondock Saints and seemed intent on making him the next big thing. And Duffy cut a Smith-like figure: He was a blue-collar bruiser from far outside the system, given to chain-smoking, colorful language, and wearing overalls without a shirt, like Larry The Cable Guy. Weinstein offered Duffy a sweetheart deal that included $300,000 upfront for the script, a $15 million production budget, and a record contract for Duffy's band, The Brood. And to consummate the marriage, Weinstein even agreed to buy a stake in Duffy's Hollywood bar.
To say that Duffy allowed all these developments to go to his head doesn't begin to describe the colossal arrogance and hubris that would eventually lead to his ruination. In Overnight—a documentary/hit-job about the Boondock fiasco, directed by two of his former creative associates—Duffy declares himself "Hollywood's newest hard-on" and seems to believe that he's got all kinds of leverage, even though he's never made a movie. Skip to virtually any scene in the documentary, and there's Duffy, bloviating at length about the unprecedented genius of himself and his dead-eyed cohorts ("We have a deep cesspool of creativity here") while burning every bridge and scorching every patch of earth he comes across. Here's but one brief montage of disses:
Based on what we see of him in Overnight, I have no problem joining in the schadenfreude that greeted Duffy's fall from grace. As the Pavement line above suggests, unproven commodities like Duffy are nothing until they've put their heads down and actually produced something of value, and hearing this egomaniac hold court about his brilliance makes people rightfully root for him to fail. Among the many Duffy highlights: Calling Meryl Poster (Weinstein's right-hand woman at Miramax and one of Hollywood's most powerful women) a "cunt" in the same sentence he blasts her for considering him a womanizer and a drunk, referring to Boondock as "one of the greatest independent films ever made" as he awaits an offer that never comes at Cannes, and fantasizing bitterly about making Weinstein pay through the nose to pick up the film once it triumphantly makes it to the screen.
And yet with all that said, I'm going to float this radical idea out there: Troy Duffy kinda got screwed.
In the end, Weinstein dropped Duffy, who wound up shooting The Boondock Saints for half the budget with another production company. And guess what? Irony of ironies, the kid actually made a movie that a lot of people wanted to see. When every distributor passed on the film at Cannes, the rights finally fell to Indican Pictures, a speck of an independent label even in the world of speck-like independent labels. Duffy blames the film's failure on unfortunate timing, and that's somewhat understandable, given that Columbine happened a month before the film's Cannes première. Still, it's hard to believe that the Boondock Saints Duffy finally completed is anything other than exactly the movie that Miramax expected and wanted from him. And it's harder still to believe that the film could have slipped so deep into indie-distribution hell were he not such a pariah in Hollywood. Duffy only has himself to blame for scotching the sweetest deal a first-time filmmaker could ever hope to get, but he ultimately delivered on his end of the bargain. The fact that he hasn't seen a dime from the film's runaway success on DVD—thanks to a deal inked by an agency (William Morris) that he never felt represented his interests—isn't really just. It's more like just deserts.
As for The Boondock Saints itself, well, there's certainly a cesspool of creativity at work here. Watching it for the first time this week, I was curious to find out why a cult rallied around a film that was neither commercially nor critically successful, and on that level at least, I can understand why it has as following. To put it diplomatically, Duffy paints in very bold strokes: There's hardly a moment that passes without something "cool" from the florid dialogue, the cartoonish performances, and the hey-look-ma flurry of slo-motion shots, freeze-frames, and unmotivated fades to black. It's all very stylish and badass until you realize, within a few minutes, what you're watching: Martin Scorsese, as re-imagined by a vulgar, precocious, ADD-afflicted 13-year-old boy.
The opening scene says it all. It's St. Patrick's Day in Boston, and parishioners are packed into a Catholic church for Mass. In the middle of the homily, a pair of fraternal twins (played by Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus) stroll purposefully down the aisle, donning identical dark coats, rosaries, and mirthless glowers. They quietly slip past the priest, kneel before a large crucifix, and say a solemn prayer as an angelic chorus swells on the soundtrack. Meanwhile, the priest sermonizes about some lurid murder that took place in view of an uncaring audience. "We must all fear evil," he says. "But there's another kind of evil which we must fear most, and that's the indifference of good men." And on that note, the sunglasses come out, the cigarettes are lit, and the brothers are ready to cleanse the city in blood.
Having the boys pray before going vigilante reminded me of the crude, abbreviated second act in the notorious cult horror film I Spit On Your Grave, in which a young woman is gang-raped and left for dead by four men—including the village idiot, for that added touch of class. But before she seeks vengeance via castration and other grisly acts, she asks God for forgiveness for the sins she's about to commit. And that's really the purpose of the first scene in Boondock: These brothers feel they must commit evil in order to thwart a greater evil, and by taking such drastic measures, they're doing the Lord's work. (Incidentally, this is how terrorists think, too.) If I had any sense that either I Spit On Your Grave or The Boondock Saints took their themes of religion and vigilantism at all seriously, then they might be more forgivable. But the church scenes are just empty posturing, a way of justifying the bloodbath to come while giving their heroes some moral cover.
Case in point: Whenever the brothers shoot a victim execution-style, they first launch into a prayer in which they declare themselves shepherds of the Lord, acting in His service and with His power. "So shall flow a river forth to Thee," they say, "and teeming with souls shall it ever be." Then they go into Latin, cocking their guns between phrases, and blow the victim's head off. Awesome, right? Well, consider a similar device in a little-known film called Pulp Fiction. A hired gun named Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) also prefaces his hits with Biblical verse, from the Quentin Tarantino Edition of Ezekiel, about the "righteous man" shepherding the weak through the valley of darkness. At a critical turning point in the film, Jules reflects on what it means:
I been sayin' that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, it meant your ass. I never really questioned what it meant. I thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker before you popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin' made me think twice. Now I'm thinkin': it could mean you're the evil man. And I'm the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could be you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. I'd like that. But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be a shepherd.
That's just great writing, but more than that, it signals a moment of real, profound change for Jules and suggests his unexpected potential to achieve redemption, even grace. I see nothing like that in The Boondock Saints, even though it's the more overtly religious of the two films. When the brothers go around slaughtering random gangsters and thugs in a superheroic bid to keep the streets safe from mayhem, they've got their honking rosaries, tattoos on their wrists ("Veritas" and "Aequitas," meaning truth and justice, respectively) and necks, and their Biblical verse. But no matter how much grim-faced solemnity Flanery and Reedus bring to the table, there's no gravity to what they're doing, and a lack of clarity to their purpose, too. It's too much to expect Duffy (or anybody, really) to offer up a monologue as good as Tarantino's, but it isn't too much to expect him to take some responsibility over the themes he's addressing. I never thought I'd say something like this, but The Boondock Saints is a movie for people who think Tarantino is too cerebral.
Like a lot of cult movies of its kind, Boondock is a collection of self-consciously "cool" sequences, patched together from parts borrowed from Scorsese, Tarantino, Hong Kong action cinema, and comic books. And many of those moments are so crazily over-the-top that I found myself simultaneously laughing my head off and wondering if that's what Duffy intended me to do. (Expect that thought to come up a lot during Camp Month in July, which could have easily included this movie.) Take this scene, for example: After an ambush by a pair of Russian henchmen leaves one brother abducted and the other chained to the toilet in their rathole apartment, it calls for a creative solution.
It's here that The Boondock Saints enters the realm of the superhero movie— that is, unless Duffy feels it's possible for a man to tear a heavy porcelain toilet seat from the concrete floor, heave it off a five-story roof, and then dive off the roof himself with the expectation that he'll survive the fall. (Granted, those burly henchmen are pillow-soft.) And the more ludicrous it gets, the better, because it's easier to accept the brothers as Boston's answer to The Punisher than real people solving real problems in the real world. I imagine Boondock fans embrace it as a big, splashy comic book of a movie, but I'm not convinced that Duffy has that firm a handle over his effects. A few scenes are giddily, irresistibly over-the-top; many more are silly, juvenile, and laughably over-the-top.
None of the blame can fall on Willem Dafoe, however. As a gay FBI agent on the brothers' trail, Dafoe chews all the scenery in sight, then glances around feverishly looking for more, hungrily awaiting the next monologue or operatic freakout. From where I'm sitting, his homosexuality is little more than an excuse for some off-color pillow talk, but Dafoe has been encouraged to amp up the flamboyance. He swishes and sashays his way around crime scenes, a forensic genius traipsing to his own private symphony. In Duffy's one clever gambit, we see the brothers' crimes in flashback as Dafoe reconstructs the scene from the evidence. The film's most memorable sequence actually places Dafoe in the middle of an ambush, as the brothers go toe-to-toe with a legendary assassin named "Il Duce" (Billy Connelly).
So, camp or genius? Or does it matter? Me, I find the film irredeemably silly and overcooked, but I don't begrudge the throngs of people who see it as Grand Guignol of the sort I usually admire from directors like Brian De Palma. (Though De Palma generally doesn't flatter himself by having a character orchestrate his action sequences like an enraptured conductor.) The problem with The Boondock Saints is that there's nothing behind the style but faint gestures toward profundity. Duffy makes a last-ditch effort to express some ambivalence about vigilantism in the closing credits, a faux-newscast that queries the people of Boston as to whether the brothers are a force for good or evil. But he's not fooling anyone: Boondocks is unambiguously pro-revenge, and it views the authorities as feckless and ineffectual, to the point where even Dafoe's brilliant agent throws in the towel. In the end, the film is a childish fantasy as outsized and oblivious as Duffy anointing himself the Second Coming.
Next week: Punch-Drunk Love
July 3: Wild Things
July 10: Road House
July 17: Manos: The Hands Of Fate vs. Troll 2
July 24: Showgirls