Friday, March 29, 2024

In the Land of Saints and Sinners

One of the PR hazards of terrorism is that when you set out to kill innocent people, sometimes you kill the “wrong” innocent people. That is the case for Doireann McCann, when her IRA cell inadvertently blows up two children and mother, who happened to pass by their pub bombing at the worst possible moment. Until the heat blows over, they hide out in the remote coastal village of Glencolmcille, where nonpolitical hitman Finbar Murphy lives. He has had enough of killing in general, but he remains just as dangerous as he ever was in Robert Lorenz’s In the Land of Saints and Sinners, which opens today in theaters.

In 1974, “The Troubles” were heating up, but Murphy kills for money rather than a cause. Bart McGuiness was supposed to be just another job, but instead of begging for his life, he tells Murphy to make something of his lonely life before it is too late. If there is an award for performances under five minutes, Mark O’Regan ought to be in contention for his portrayal of McGuiness. Consequently, Murphy rather takes his words to heart, so he tenders his notice to his shady boss, the reclusive Robert McQue, and starts putting the moves on his single neighbor, Rita Quinn.

Murphy also notices the local barmaid’s daughter Moya is being abused by one of her mom’s unwelcomed house-guests. That would be Curtis June, part of the IRA hit squad that accidentally killed two little girls in Belfast. McCann just invited her way into her late brother’s home, obviously using the threat of violence. They were supposed to be laying low, but June’s behavior attracts Murphy’s’ attention. He basically tells McQue he is hiring his own services. McQue is against it, because he suspects June’s IRA affiliation, but Murphy mind is made up. Of course, McCann is the sort to hold grudges and extract an eye for an eye.

Land of Saints
is Lorenz’s second film with Liam Neeson, following The Marksman. Both are similar in theme and vibe to Eastwood’s Gran Torino (which Lorenz produced), in the way Neeson’s older, crustier characters come to terms with their life decisions and decide to face-down dangerous foes, because they refuse to abide by any ethical code. The Marksman is a more straight-forward action movie (but a good one), whereas screenwriters Mark Michael McNally and Terry Loane tell a more sophisticated story of IRA intrigue.

Arguably, it is pretty impressive that the well-known assembly of Irish thesps would appear in a film that casts the IRA in such a negative light. This is a great cast, featuring the hardnosed trinity of Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, and Colm Meaney. Neeson does his thing as Murphy, but Lorenz helps him stretch a bit into more emotionally complex territory. As usual, Meaney is more fun than a sale on Guiness Stout as sleazy, crotchety McQue. Hinds radiates decency as Vincent O’Shea, the honest local copper (who thinks Murphy is a rare book dealer).

Neeson also develops some really nice, quiet, grown-up chemistry with Niamh Cusack, as Quinn. He is wonderfully sensitive working with young Michelle Gleeson, who is terrific as little Moya. Jack Gleeson also brings unexpected depth to Kevin Lynch, McQue’s other triggerman, but the scary one is Kerry Condon, who is spectacularly unstable and vicious as McCann.

This is definitely one of Neeson’s better action films of recent vintage. The narrative structure is familiar, but it also offers a shrewd examination of the extremist true believer mentality and the politics of terrorism. Plus, Neeson still throws down like a pro. Highly recommended for fans of Neeson and IRA thrillers,
In the Land of Saints and Sinners opens today (3/29) in theaters, including the AMC Empire in New York.