John Boorman's The General, a restless movie about a real-life Irish thief who was already planning the next job while executing the last one, is almost sinfully enjoyable. Martin Cahill, who (à la Douglas MacArthur) referred to himself as "The General," got himself killed in 1994, but not before making off with an estimated $60 million in cash, jewels, art--basically, anything that wasn't nailed down and many things that were. Even Boorman's own house got hit in 1981, Cahill taking, among other things, the director's gold record for "Dueling Banjos" in Deliverance. No hard feelings, I guess, because Boorman includes a scene of Cahill gliding through his house while Van Morrison's "So Quiet in Here" whispers on the soundtrack. The guy was incorrigible, and the movie suggests that the Irish loved him for it. We love him for it too, only to have our noses rubbed in it when Cahill, with the cops hounding him like a fox, starts devouring the chickens who stand between him and freedom. One associate, a heroin addict who may have been ripping Cahill off, gets his hands nailed to a pool table. Then, when Cahill realizes the guy must be telling the truth, he bundles him up and rushes him to the hospital. Brendan Gleeson, in a gleefully robust performance, shows us both sides of this charismatic brute, the soft-hearted friend and the hard-hearted fiend, then leaves us to decide what it all means. We're given almost no background information. The movie opens with the young Cahill (played by Eamonn Owens, the eponymous star of Neil Jordan's The Butcher Boy) running from the police with a full cargo of stolen food. Apparently, he never stopped running.
Until the IRA stopped him, that is. Half Robin Hood, half leprechaun, Cahill recognized no authority other than his own, but that didn't keep the authorities (Jon Voight has a small role as the Irish Javert) from recognizing him. Pretty soon, like most career criminals, he had a lot more enemies than friends. I said the movie opens with the young Cahill running from the police. Actually, it opens with the older Cahill sitting in his car as an IRA hitman runs up, pulls out a gun and starts firing. The rest of the movie is an extended flashback, Cahill's life passing before his eyes in a headlong rush. Shot in black-and-white, The General is as quick and slick and seemingly improvised as one of Cahill's heists. Barely has the movie started before it's over, Cahill having meanwhile walked off with our most precious possession, our sense of propriety.