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The General

Columbia Tristar Home Video

Starring Brendan Gleeson and Jon Voight

Written by John Boorman and Paul Williams
Based on the novel by Paul Williams
Directed by John Boorman

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Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) was a rare breed of criminal. Ireland's most famous burglar was an incorrigible character, totally at odds with the image of the modern gangster. Cahill, known as "The General", did not rule those around him with fear. Although he could take a vicious, unforgiving turn when crossed, he was liked by most everyone, save for the law. He also eschewed conspicuous display of his success. Unlike the United States' Dapper Don, John Gotti, the modest Cahill preferred silly T-shirts and rarely appeared in public without a hooded parka pulled tight over his unkempt hair.

Cahill, it seems, did not steal for power or greed. Nor did he turn to crime to break out of the slums. Cahill was proud of his roots in the rough, lower class community of Hollyfield. He felt that poverty united people against a common enemy: the government. That's why Cahill stole: for the joy of outfoxing poor society's great oppressors. Nothing filled Cahill with as much glee as eluding the police, or exploiting obscure clauses in the law to gain a mistrial.

Director John Boorman's The General, is a wonderful film. With his most assured touch since 1981's Excalibur, Boorman tells Cahill's story with great style, humor, and emotion. He presents all of the quirks, warmth, and guile that gained Cahill his folk hero status, but never shies away from his dark side. This was a man, after all, who made his living sticking guns in people's faces, and showed no mercy to his own crew when they ran afoul of him. Boorman brilliantly captures both sides, and plays no favorites. In one quiet scene, Cahill plays both ends of the moral spectrum as his wife praises his abstinence from drugs and alcohol and then reluctantly encourages him to start a sexual relationship with her younger sister, whom he admits to coveting.

Most of The General plays like a cat-and-mouse chase between Cahill and his top adversary, Inspector Ned Kelley (Jon Voight). Cahill's "strokes," as he calls his burglaries, get more audacious — from an arcade, to a jewelry store, to a priceless art collection — and Kelley amasses an increasingly large task force to track his movements. Cahill is forced again and again to reach deep into his resources of creativity to break their surveillance. Cahill derides Kelley's efforts to catch him. He taunts the inspector, telling Kelley the only way the police — there's a small army of them camped out in front of his home — can catch him will be to stoop to his own level, compromising their condescending moral high ground, proving themselves no better than him.

The police aren't the only ones after him. Cahill gains the enmity of the IRA when he refuses to share his spoils with the insurgent group, and incurs their wrath further by dealing on the black market with their loyalist opposition. As his gang grows careless and/or weary of these increasing pressures and end up in jail, Cahill — also under investigation for tax fraud — begins to dissolve into paranoia.

Boorman opens and ends the film with Cahill's murder, by an unidentified gunman, in his car outside his home. Cahill, defenseless, watches his executioner approach and fire a bullet into his head, but his expression is beatific. He knows that conspicuous absence of Kelley's task force outside his house is no coincidence — the police have hired an assassin — and that the moment of his greatest defeat is also his great moral victory.

Boorman, whose output is so uneven — from the excellent Deliverance and Excalibur to the awful Exorcist II: The Heretic and Where the Heart Is — hits just the right note in every scene of The General, with Gleeson shining in the starring role, and a terrific bluesy score by Richie Buckley.

This disc offers two versions of the film, the black and white theatrical release, and the other in desaturated color. Both versions are in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and 2.0 Dolby Surround. You may also want to make use of the English subtitles; Gleeson's Irish brogue is thick as potato stew. Textual supplements, trailer, keep case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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