Earlier this year a movie called Hunger took us inside Ireland’s brutal Long Kesh prison to illustrate how IRA volunteer Bobby Sands had starved himself to death for the right to be declared a prisoner of war rather than a criminal. It was an artful, yet fierce film set against the backdrop of the Northern Ireland Troubles. More conventional, but equally as effective is 50 Dead Men Walking, a true story based on the life of Martin McGartland, a twenty-two-year-old recruited by the British police to infiltrate and spy on the IRA.
Set in late 80’s Belfast, as the story begins Martin (Jim Sturgess) is a two-bit hustler, selling stolen goods from door to door. He’s a charming apolitical rogue who’ll do anything to make a quick and easy buck. When a friend becomes the victim of violent IRA intimidation Martin becomes a person of interest to both the IRA and the British police. Siding with the police Martin takes on the job of double agent, joining the IRA, gaining their trust and reporting on their every move. Despite the constant danger of being found out and subsequently tortured and killed, Martin hands over information that saves the lives of at least 50 people. When his position is compromised, however, he must make the most difficult decision of his life.
Once you get past the heavy Irish accents—they’re as thick and rich as a pint of well-poured Guinness—the story unfolds in standard bio pic fashion, but never fails to maintain interest. The movie’s desaturated, grainy look gives the story a naturalistic, gritty feel and Canadian director Kari Skogland shows a steady hand at moving the story along while keeping it believable.
The film’s ferocious pace is slowed only by a love story that feels tagged on. The romance adds dashes of melodrama that marginally intensifies the film’s climax but adding a girlfriend and child and dwelling on the consequences they may suffer as the result of his actions doesn’t add much to the overall story.
At the center of it all is Jim Sturgess, a young British actor who is turning into one of the most versatile actors going, handing in solid work in everything from Julie Taymor’s frou-frou musical Across the Universe to period work in The Other Boleyn Girl and a convincing American turn in the big studio picture 21. Here he’s playing in an indie feature, one that relies on integrity and performance and he pulls it off. As the heat turns up on his character his sweaty veneer looks real and not spritzed on by an overly attentive make-up artist. It’s good work from an interesting new actor.
50 Dead Men Walking has been described as a Belfast Donnie Brasco, and while the two may share a similar storyline they are different beasts. Brasco is a crime drama, and an entertaining one, but 50 Dead Men Walking is something deeper. It offers up a slice of our recent, troubled history and is buoyed by good performances from Sturgess and co-star Ben Kingsley (unfortunate wig excluded) coupled with a provocative, powerful story.