Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

I Liked this in College: The Boondock Saints

In I Liked this in College, Jeff rewatches a movie that he once adored to see how it holds up now that he’s a pretentious blogger.

How do you say 'guilty pleasure' in Latin?

Why I Liked The Boondock Saints:  I was exposed to The Boondock Saints for the first time in the dorms freshman year of college. I’d wandered across the hall where a friend of mine, Tim, had downloaded Saints onto his laptop (this might have also been my first exposure to the wonders of torrents, so thanks for that Tim). Later in the same semester during a dorm room fracas, in a gory scene that could’ve been filmed by Saints director Troy Duffy, I saw Tim get the tip of his middle finger chopped off in a door. But I’m saving that story for my forthcoming “Times I’ve Seen Blood Spurt out of People” column.

Anyway, I came into that first viewing of Saints late. If memory serves, it was during Willem Dafoe’s first monologue in the alley, his headphones blaring opera, hamming it up as he reconstructed how the MacManus brothers had escaped certain death via a flying toilet. I was hooked. Later, I’d pick up a copy of the DVD in a Best Buy discount bin and start my own pro Boondock Saints campaign, screening it for anyone who would watch. I like to think that I was an early member of the Saints’ cult following, although knowing what I do now about Troy Duffy (he’s an asshole), I’m not especially proud of that.

Cameo by director Troy Duffy, where he is seen marveling at his own dumb luck.

I’ve always been an action movie fan, which is a big reason why I gravitated to The Boondock Saints. The early millennium was a bleak time for action junkies, especially if you’d given up on The Matrix and weren’t into Vin Diesel. Here was a stylized, gritty, gem of an action movie that wasn’t reliant on CGI or bullet-time (two things I was tiring of even back then) that I could take some pride in helping “discover.” The Boondock Saints was capable of satisfying both my lust for bloodshed and my pretentious college film snob need for indie credibility.

And let us not ignore the fact that the brothers MacManus (Sean Patrick Flannery and Norman Reedus) were hella cool. They looked badass, they dispatched enemies in creative ways, and they cracked wise. We’re like 7/11 – we might not always be doing business, but we’re always open. Awesome! Because of The Boondock Saints, I’ve found myself unnaturally aware of Norman Reedus’ career, in spite of the fact that I don’t think he’s been in a single movie I liked over the last 10 years.

Suffice it to say, I was invested in these gun-toting Irish Catholic rogues. Back in 2003, at the height of the Saints cult phenomenon, when Duffy announced there would be a sequel, one that I might even be able to see in theaters, I was ecstatic. Like Duffy, I was thinking franchise. Of course, then Duffy’s well-publicized flameout with Harvey Weinstein put the project in purgatory for 7 years, and I gradually forgot about my beloved Saints.

It’s probably been 5 years since I’ve seen The Boondock Saints. I’ve never seen the sequel.

The best part.

What I Think After the Rewatch: I can see why an 18 year old kid would gravitate to The Boondock Saints. The violence - while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it excessive – is prevalent, and depicted with that late 90s post-Tarantino smirking casualness. They kill a cat – it’s funny! There’s also an absurd (verging on cringe worthy) amount of profanity – 246 ‘fucks’ according to iMDB – so many that even Connor MacManus comments on it, dead-panning after an especially explicit (and typically incoherent) Rocco jag: “well, he certainly illustrates the versatility of the word.” Connor is absolutely right, both about Rocco and the quality of Troy Duffy’s script. Duffy’s a virtuoso when it comes to “fuck” usage, and while I suppose this might pass for realism in working class Boston, it gets pretty tiring after a point. All that is to say that carelessly violent and needlessly profane definitely appeal to 18 year old malcontents like me – and I’m not even going to mention the misogyny!

I lied – I am going to mention the misogyny. Troy Duffy is clearly terrified of women. Before the opening credits finish rolling, the brothers MacManus have already gotten into a brawl with a militantly feminist uber-dyke. Later, Rocco will threaten his junkie girlfriend and her friend at gunpoint, screaming at the friend that he “can’t go for a pack of smokes without running into 9 guys [she’s] fucked.” And that’s all the room The Boondock Saints has for women. Maybe Duffy tries to soften this a bit when Willem Dafoe’s flamingly gay, self-loathing FBI Agent Paul Smecker dresses in drag for the film’s bumbling conclusion. Psychoanalyze that, why don’t you?

I didn't want to devote any column space to Rocco, so I'll put this here: he sucks.

If those last two paragraphs read as stodgy, that's because they are. I'm an adult now! I have sophisticated viewpoints. I also still love action movies. I realize that the best action movies - my favorites, at least - rely on excessive violence and embrace their politically incorrectness. They're trashy and I love that. However, The Boondock Saints doesn't even work that well as an action movie. What I remembered as thrilling shootouts are actually highly stylized flashbacks and, while I suppose it's not technically bullet-time, there's still plenty of unnecessary slow motion. There's never a sense of danger, at least until the film's final scenes, when we're finally allowed some action in the present tense and, subsequently, the film collapses under the weight of nonsensical twists and cross dressing. Trashy is good for an action flick - but silly? Never.

So why did I still end up sitting through the entirety of The Boondock Saints with a dumb smile on my face? All my complaints aside, it's a lot of fun. Flannery and Reedus are charming and funny, and their interplay even makes scenes with the atrocious Rocco tolerable. Really though, it's Dafoe's flamboyant Stecker that carries the movie. I was surprised by how many Stecker scenes and one-liners I remembered and looked forward to ("what's the sssssymbolism?"). He's the star here, not the Saints. Overstylized as they might be, Dafoe breathes life into the crime scene recreations turned action sequences. The film never gets better than during the penultimate shootout with The Duke (Billy Connolly), where Dafoe goes from buttoned down to sweaty and manic, from firing finger guns to shooting actual rounds in the air, bellowing "there was a firefight!" It's tremendous.

Knowing all the external hijinks around The Boondock Saints also makes it a more interesting watch 10 years down the line. Initially derailed by the Columbine massacre and later buried by Duffy’s bad behavior, this is still a genuine attempt at a franchise starter. It precedes X-Men (the first of the modern era super hero movies) by a year, and yet it uses the same stock plot framework we’ve seen in every hero flick over the last decade. I’m not saying that Saints influenced the impending wave of super hero movies, but Duffy’s definitely ahead of the curve when it comes to pushing the right buttons to launch a franchise.

There’s a lot of material left out there for sequels: the scary extremist parts of the Saints’ eye-for-an-eye Nietzsche 101 philosophy, the possibility that the Saints are actually sleeper agents of justice pre-programmed by their psychotic father, the overarching questions of good vs. evil and the right of man to play God. Expecting Duffy to raise those questions in the sequel (which I haven’t watched, but know was universally panned) is probably stupid. In fact, I’m not sure I could tolerate another Boondock Saints without the nostalgia factor to pad Duffy’s insipid douchebaggery.

The man.

Do I Still Like It? I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I once championed The Boondock Saints. There are so many things wrong with it. It doesn’t work for me anymore as a whole, but Dafoe’s performance and certain sequences of stylized violence still hold a place in my heart. I never see myself popping in the DVD, but I’d definitely linger if it popped up on TNT.

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4 Responses »

  1. I feel like in recent years, The Boondock Saints has been the victim of backlash due to overzealous and unsophisticated supporters and Troy Duffy's overall status as an asshole and idiot. That's totally understandable, but it also has nothing to do with the actual movie.

    I was always bothered by the way that all of the action scenes are visited after the fact. It's a bold narrative gambit and one that doesn't entirely ruin the movie only because of, as you mention, Dafoe's performance.

    And that's pretty much how I feel about all of Boondock Saints. It's largely the tactless, juvenile, bullet-ridden fantasy of an overgrown man-baby. Its saving grace though, is that it is undeniably fun, pretty much entirely due to likable performances from the Saints themselves, Dafoe, the other cops and lots of people I'm probably forgetting. And that's something that many action movies (including ones that get big theatrical releases) are missing - fun stuff to fill the void in between fistfights and shootouts, which are more often than not interchangeable.

  2. Marty DeTrom Delabasi!!!

  3. saw boondock saints II, whatever its called, i cant remember, it is absolutely awful.

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