The Devil’s Own, which centers on the conflict between Brad Pitt’s Belfast terrorist and Harrison Ford’s Staten Island cop, gets off to a scrappy start before director Alan J. Pakula (Presumed Innocent) lets it go as soft as The Saint. Pitt found the early stages of the film “irresponsible.” Translation: When Ford agreed to play the police sergeant, Tom O’Meara, the Kevin Jarre story that Pitt had signed on to do was rewritten by many hands. “We made it up as we went along,” said Pitt.
It doesn’t look that way. Despite the toxic buzz, The Devil’s Own is a surprisingly coherent look at lawbreaking. The problem is, there are few other surprises outside of Pitt’s one-of-the-lads brogue. You expect more than a plodding character study broken by bursts of violence.
The deck is stacked in the film’s prologue as 8-year-old Frankie watches his father get gunned down at home. Frankie views his revenge against the British as a holy war. The film pretends not to take sides, but Pitt is its star and meal ticket.
Cinematographer Gorden Willis lights Pitt like an angel in blond hair and dark leather. Even Frankie’s passport photo looks like the cover of Hunk Beautiful. It’s the hunk the film’s trailer is selling. Pitt’s blue eyes gleam as he shoots the baddies, beds the babe and locks horns with Ford, who looks unduly glum (the Star Wars reissue has made us miss his light touch).
Pitt and Ford try to dig deeper, but the script undercuts them with preachy dialogue that might as well read, “Insert stereotype here.” Frankie charms Tom’s wife, Sheila (Margaret Colin), and their young daughters. He uses Tom’s home as a cover to buy missiles from the lethal Billy Burke (Treat Williams). When Frankie’s betrayal puts the O’Mearas in peril, Tom’s rage rivals Frankie’s guilt.
Ultimately, Frankie sees the good in Tom, a cop who abhors violence. Frankie sees his love for Megan (Natascha McElhone) reflected in Tom’s love for Sheila. Mostly he sees Tom as the father he lost. It’s hokey, but Pitt and Ford act with feeling until the bloody climax, when you damn near choke on the male bonding and noble sacrifice. In its rush to show that there’s no such thing as a bad boy if the boy is a movie star, Hollywood has taken the devilish fun out of escapism. The sanitized do-gooders of The Devil’s Own and The Saint leave you begging for these guys to go and sin some more.