There are some behind-the-scenes movie stories that are so famous, it’s hard to separate what you know about a production from the finished picture. Such is the case with writer and director Troy Duffy’s debut, The Boondock Saints, an action thriller with a history almost as larger-than-life as the one it depicts on screen.
Initially the toast of Hollywood’s trade newspapers when the spec script was picked up by Harvey Weinstein in 1997, the resulting Boondock Saints movie ended up as a barely-distributed indie picture with a grim critical response. So what went wrong, and was it really as bad as the 90s critics suggested?
In 1997, Troy Duffy was riding a crest of success and media celebrity. His script had just sparked a bidding war among Hollywood producers, and Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein ultimately won, picking up The Boondock Saints – a story about Irish vigilantes cutting a swathe through Boston’s gangland – for a reported $300,000. For Duffy, a barman who’d been inspired to write the story after witnessing a drug dealer steal money from a dead body outside his apartment, this was a huge moment – and the Hollywood press, with a nose for rags-to-riches stories, was quick to pick up on the sale.
Weinstein’s deal sounded like something from a dream, too: as well as the script, Duffy was given the chance to direct, while his band, The Brood, could produce the soundtrack. The producer even threw in the bar Duffy worked in as an added sweetener to the deal.
As captured in the documentary Overnight, things were initially looking promising for Duffy’s movie. A healthy budget of $15 million was set aside, and the script had attracted an extraordinary range of talented actors – Ethan Hawke, Keanu Reeves and Kenneth Branagh were all mentioned, while Jeff Goldblum and Mark Wahlberg were among the visitors to Duffy’s bar.
Gradually, as the documentary records, the deal went sour. Duffy’s brusque approach to dealing with producers and actors made him few friends, and by December 1997, Miramax had pulled out. The much smaller production company Franchise Pictures stepped in – albeit with a much less generous budget of around $6million – and Boondock Saints finally began shooting the following year.
Despite all the setbacks, Duffy remained resilient. “I’m not worried about making enemies with Miramax,” he says in one part the Overnight documentary. “In fact, I’m looking forward to it…”
Wearing its Tarantino and Hong Kong ‘heroic bloodshed’ influences on its sleeve, The Boondock Saints is a dementedly loud, wilfully artificial thriller. Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus star as Connor and Murphy McManus, a pair of Irish-American brothers who resolve to clean up the organised crime element in Boston. The bizarre self-defence killing of three Russian mobsters is the flashpoint for the film’s events, which sees the McManus brothers, apparently appointed by God himself, arm themselves and take on the town’s rival factions face-to-face.
After the pair slay an entire hotel room full of Russian mobsters, the smart, histrionic FBI agent Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe) is put on the case, and the rest of the film plays out as a kind of cat-and-mouse between the law and the vigilantes.
In a tricksy, Tarantino-esque storytelling move, The Boondock Saints shows the aftermath of the brothers’ crimes before the bloody events themselves. We see Dafoe picking over the evidence – whether it’s a gangster mysteriously crushed by a falling toilet bowl, or another hoodlum with his eyes missing and a pair of coins thrust into the vacant cavities – before we cut back to Connor and Murphy carrying out their brutal executions.
In some ways, this renders the procedural scenes redundant, since we know who the killers are and what they’re up to long before Smecker does. But thanks to Smecker’s slick-mouthed cunning and Dafoe’s game, camp operatic performance, the aftermath sequences become far more compelling than the scenes of bloodletting. Only one shoot-out – which involves the brothers shooting bad guys while spinning upside-down from a rope, like a chandelier of death – matches the visual imagination of John Woo in his prime.
Flanery and Reedus provide solid performances, but it could be argued that their characters are barely in the film. Often seen spouting grandiose statements of justice and revenge, they’re less interesting to watch than Smecker, whose verbal sparrings with the incredibly dim cops beneath him are a constant highlight. They’re also eclipsed by Rocco (David Della Rocco, in a part written especially for him), a sweaty, constantly panicked mob errand boy turned vigilante sidekick.
And then there’s Billy Connolly, who shows up as a convicted murderer turned two-fisted gunman. Even after repeat viewings, the sight of seeing Connolly engaged in screaming, slow-motion fire-fights – particularly one where Dafoe stands in the foreground, manically conducting an invisible choir – takes a bit of getting used to.
Then again, The Boondock Saints is never afraid to call attention to its own absurdity. “Television is to blame for this,” Agent Smecker opines while surveying one scene of destruction. “They’ve seen some bad television. This is James Bond shit, that’s what this is. Professionals don’t do this!”
This self-consciousness is very much in the post-Tarantino mould, as are the sundry moments of violent excess. A gratuitous executed cat appears to be a calculated attempt to add a jab of mid-point black humour akin to the accidental shooting of Marvin in Pulp Fiction. And by the time Willem Dafoe turns up on a Mafia boss’s doorstep dressed as a woman in the third act, it’s a wonder whether Duffy’s referencing an infamous plot point from Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill.
Unfortunately, the film’s second half doesn’t match the intrigue of the first. Although the characters are cartoonish – particularly an Irish bar owner, who’s unlucky enough to suffer from both a stutter and Tourette’s syndrome – and the dialogue ranting and chaotic, the structure maintains the momentum. It’s interesting to see Smecker pick apart what Connor and Murphy have been up to. But as the violence intensifies in the last 50 minutes, the story disintegrates into a narrative sludge, with even the precise, calculating Smecker devolving into a perspiring, desperate maniac.
It’s disappointing, too, to see his plot strand largely abandoned in favour of a greater focus on the brothers’ dealings with the Mob, and the true identity of Billy Connolly’s initially nameless character is truly a plot twist too far.
Having said all this, The Boondock Saints is by no means an amateurish failure, and it’s not difficult to see why it’s gained a cult following on DVD over the past decade or so. Duffy’s weird parallel world of gangsters and avengers isn’t exactly pleasant, but it is fully formed in a comic-book sort of way. It’s a grim, chaotic film, but then, it’s as much of a trashy, violent fantasy as, say, 2003’s Kill Bill Vol 1 – if not nearly in the same league technically.
Had The Boondock Saints remained under the Miramax banner, its cast would have been very different. At one point, Kenneth Branagh may have been in the running to play Agent Smecker (before Duffy’s rather rude voicemail message on Branagh’s answer machine probably nipped this casting opportunity in the bud). At another time, actors as varied as Patrick Swayze, Sylvester Stallone, Bill Murray and Mike Myers were considered. As it turns out, Dafoe’s casting was a master stroke, since he’s by far the most compelling thing about the movie. Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine Stallone pulling off such wild performance, or agreeing to flirt with a gangster while wearing a dress and full make-up.
Duffy’s parting with Miramax may have had a far greater impact on The Boondock Saints than the casting and budget, however. Not only were other producers in Hollywood conspicuously reluctant to pick up the script after the Miramax deal fell apart, but the finished film also struggled to find a distributor after it was finished. Eventually gaining a limited release in US cinemas, The Boondock Saints’ financial impact was almost non-existent, and its critical reaction was no doubt partly informed by the negative buzz surrounding the production following Miramax’s very public departure.
Despite his late 90s fall from grace, Duffy managed to garner a victory of sorts when The Boondock Saints appeared on DVD. Rapidly becoming a cult hit, the movie spawned a belated sequel – 2009’s The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day – and Duffy is currently writing a third entry.
As depicted in Overnight – shot over four years by two former friend’s of Duffy’s – the story of The Boondock Saints appears to be one of booze-fuelled arrogance, burned bridges and missed opportunities. And while we certainly can’t take everything in the documentary at face value – Duffy has, understandably, said it was edited to make him look like a “boorish asshole” – it’s hard to shake the feeling that the young writer and director had the self-confidence and talent to get a great start in a famously tough industry, but not the self-restraint to survive in a climate that requires a certain amount of trust and collaboration as well as sheer bluster.
Whatever took place behind the scenes, that The Boondock Saints finally got made is something of a marvel in itself. And while the finished film has more than its fair share of faults, it’s full of moments that stick in the mind – not least Willem Dafoe’s flamboyant performance, and Billy Connolly as the most unlikely hired killer of the 1990s.
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