Crime-Family Man

Boorman relies on the charisma of his film's central character to connect with an audience when Cahill's actions are bizarre or inscrutable. And the writer/director's confidence is justified. At his peak Cahill contains multitudes. He argues that he was happy in the tumult of the projects. Yet he glides through a wealthy home in a state of bliss -- pilfering goodies from the fridge and the hamper, rifling through the study, the nursery and the bedrooms, slipping a bracelet off the arm of a matron knocked out with sleeping pills. You can tell he gets king-size kicks from tickling the lap of luxury. Boorman enhances the scene with Van Morrison singing "So Quiet in Here" ("This must be what paradise is like") on the soundtrack. He further punctuates it with elegant blackouts, while the camera moves as stealthily and fluidly as a cat burglar. The result pulls you in and out of Cahill's omnipotent dreams.

Boorman sustains his complex take on Cahill with the help of a supporting cast that to the man (and woman) can go one-on-one with Gleeson. Ball and Kennedy make up a hardheaded, handsome miniharem; Adrian Dunbar is resolute as Cahill's top lieutenant, ridding himself of the smirk he wore in comedies like Hear My Song. And Eanna McLiam is tremulously affecting as a drug-addicted pigeon dealer whom Cahill literally crucifies before he's convinced that the man is clean.

The juiciest side parts, though, belong to Sean McGinley as the last man standing from the projects and Jon Voight as the inspector who stays on Cahill's trail. They crystallize the decadence and debasement that ensue on either side of Us vs. Them. McGinley starts as Cahill's semifarcical sidekick, thrilled to be of service even after the IRA kidnaps him and returns him in need of a wired jaw and a neck brace. But by the end he has raped his own daughter (in a drunken haze, he claims) and caused Cahill to overcome his personal repulsion to try to keep him out of jail. McGinley keeps astonishing you with his ability to wring rueful laughter out of his transparent weakness. In one breathtaking moment he thanks Cahill for grievously wounding him -- a touch that epitomizes the perversity of tribal loyalty in the Cahill gang. And as Voight's thoughtful characterization suggests, Cahill's extreme tribalism catalyzes an equally dangerous countertribalism. "You're getting to be like me," Cahill tells the cop. "Trespass, harassment, intimidation, beating people up. You've had to come down to my level." Voight shows us that he knows Cahill is pushing his brass buttons -- and also that the charge is partially true.

As Cahill rankles the IRA and then tries to enlist a Loyalist terror group in one of his schemes, it's clear that Boorman is using his story to portray the Ireland of this gangster's life and time as a chaos of competing tribes. But the movie isn't primarily political. It's mythic in a vibrant, unselfconscious way. It feels fitting that Cahill's fortunes founder after he takes up art theft. Boorman is one of the few contemporary directors to prove, nearly every time out, that art isn't something you steal from the past -- it's something you must conjure afresh from the mysteries of fate and character. The General is a piece of contemporary folklore as unexpected and potent as a brand-new urban legend.

Opens Feb. 12 at the Tivoli.
-- Michael Sragow

MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE
Directed by Luis Mandoki

Short of nuclear holocaust, a major sale at Kmart or a confirmed Clint Eastwood sighting back in rural Iowa, there's probably no way to keep the movie version of Message in a Bottle from overwhelming the tender emotions of the hearts-and-flowers crowd. After all, this relentless assault on the tear ducts features (1) Kevin Costner as a manly (but sensitive) North Carolina boat builder who can't let go of his dead wife, (2) Robin Wright Penn as the wary (but sensitive) Chicago newspaperwoman who falls in love with him anyway, and (3) Paul Newman as the grieving widower's crusty (but sensitive) father. Don't plunk down your seven bucks expecting to see Casablanca or The English Patient. Instead, Message in a Bottle is a standard two-hanky weeper, photographed (by Caleb Deschanel) as softly and sweetly as a TV spot for a feminine-hygiene product and directed (by Luis Mandoki) with the skill of an evangelist herding rubes into the tent. Significantly, Warner Bros. is releasing the movie before Nicholas Sparks' syrupy bestseller, from which the film descends, has cooled off. Sparks, author of the 1996 pop hit The Notebook and reigning boy wonder of romance fiction, sent his manuscript for Message in a Bottle to his publisher only nine months ago: Since then it has sold nearly a million copies and become the Love Story -- or The Bridges of Madison County -- of the moment.

A movie version with Kevin Costner and Robin Wright Penn entwined on a beach bathed in the pink-and-mauve glow of sunset will likely just enhance the book's sales. He's as wooden as ever, and she's all big-eyed wonder. But they look awfully nice together. Certainly director Mandoki knows this thrumming-on-the-heartstrings business better than most. He previously wrapped romance around cerebral palsy in Gaby, A True Story (1987) and infused alcoholism with marital devotion in When a Man Loves a Woman (1994). For Message he has employed composer Gabriel Yared, who buoys up the proceedings with a sea of violins.

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