A- Sound A
starring Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Margaret Colin, Ruben Blades
screenplay by David Aaron Cohen & Vincent Patrick and Kevin Jarre
directed by Alan J. Pakula
by Bill Chambers One of the intriguing consequences of a new home-video medium is that, whether due to a paucity of selection or, in my case, professional obligation, you wind up revisiting some marginal titles you never thought you'd have cause to see again. Case in point: the final film from the mercurial Alan J. Pakula, 1997's The Devil's Own, which docks on Blu-ray as part of Sony's suddenly-aggressive catalogue rollout. The kind of topical widescreen melodrama Hollywood trotted out pretty regularly in the CinemaScope era, as well as the kind of glib commentary on another nation's failures you'd expect from Edward Zwick or Sydney Pollack before Pakula, the picture began life as a typically-contentious Kevin Jarre script about a vicious, coke-snorting IRA terrorist who crosses paths with a "hair-bag"--i.e., a cop still walking the beat long past his prime--while on the lam in New York.
When Harrison Ford, evidently still skittish from the cold shoulder the masses gave his daringly against-type turn in The Mosquito Coast, signed on to play O'Meara, the aforementioned hair-bag, the screenplay was transformed at his behest and sans Jarre into something much more middle-of-the-road, albeit without adequately addressing what a guy with Ford's charisma and obvious intellect is doing patrolling the streets in middle-age. Indeed, all the Ford-ian gravitas that was injected into the character (originally a much bigger loser) is curiously diluted by our every glimpse of him in police blues, while his righteous indignation seems disproportionate to a hair-bag's innate lack of ambition. Ditto O'Meara's sense of entitlement as he barges into the house of a high-ranking judge late in the picture and proceeds to bash the guy's head into a wall. Rarely have a role and its actor's iconography operated at such cross-purposes.
A major proponent of Jarre's draft, Ford's co-star Brad Pitt bristled at the softening of the material basic, yet although his discomfort is palpable, he never goes so far as to show contempt for the role as Edward Norton did under similar conditions (he tried to drop out and was threatened with a lawsuit) in The Italian Job. Pitt's accent--an amateurish approximation of a Belfast brogue overreliant on clichéd "aye"s--is the one thing empirically wrong with his performance, but he and Pakula keep this from coming into relief by having Pitt almost whisper his dialogue, something that has the added effect of calibrating the picture closer to the sensibilities of Pakula's hallowed conspiracy thrillers. Reuniting Pakula with DP Gordon Willis just in time, the movie even has a caliginous mise-en-scène that could be considered a throwback, with Ford and Pitt often lit like complementary halves of the yin yang symbol. If The Devil's Own is hardly the film anyone would've chosen for Pakula to go out on, at least it sparks nostalgia for his early masterpieces where the director's two previous films (Consenting Adults and The Pelican Brief) threatened to trash their reputation completely.
Aye, it's unfortunate, then, that the picture succumbs to a familiar narcissism. Oversimplifying The Troubles until it has trivialized them, The Devil's Own is finally just another schoolmarmish prestige piece touting America's moral superiority; and in typical fashion, not only is the Irishman not the hero of this self-proclaimed "Irish story," he's also portrayed, however respectfully, by a guy in greenface. I can't remember ever wanting to sock Ford more than when Pitt's Frankie McGuire explains that the situation in Northern Ireland is something an outsider couldn't begin to appreciate and Ford's McGruff the Crime Dog lectures in response that killing is bad. The Devil's Own attempts to give O'Meara some ethical dimension by having him cover for his partner's involvement in the shooting of an unarmed perp, but in the end this only makes him out to be a hypocrite. (As an FBI agent points out, he's Irish Catholic, too.) Ultimately, Dublin-born actor Gabriel Byrne said it first and best: "A tragedy I lived through in my lifetime in the north of Ireland became an action film with Harrison Ford running around as the sane American sorting out the Irish."
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Sony brings The Devil's Own to BD in a lush 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. While the image appears borderline oversaturated throughout, this is offset by rich, supple blacks. I did detect a bit of gatefloat, but that only enhances the celluloid illusion. (Alas, a bit of edge-enhancement helps shatter the same.) Likewise, I found much to love about the 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio: A surprisingly current-sounding mix is conveyed with impressive clarity, transparency, and depth. Really, The Devil's Own could scarcely ask for a better presentation. The studio, alas, continues to deny us any sort of retrospective on this notoriously troubled production--the only extras are previews for "Damages" Season 1,"Rescue Me", and the Blu-ray format itself. Originally published: May 5, 2008.