Michael Collins won the patriot game all right; it was the compatriot game that he never mastered.
In 1922, at 31, the charismatic Irish terrorist-turned-statesman was gunned down on his way to a meeting. The shooter didn't wear the black-and-tan of the English paramilitary unit Collins had fought almost to the death in the streets of Dublin, and he didn't wear the OD of the British Army. He wore the rough-spun cotton of the rural Irish guerrilla: Collins was killed by his own guys, yet another martyr in the internecine warfare that marks both Irish and revolutionary politics.
Neil Jordan, off the two world hits "The Crying Game" and "Interview with the Vampire," now tells Collins' story, which might be considered an amalgamation of those last two films: It's an interview with a terrorist.
Jordan is a sumptuous, careful craftsman, working on a labor of love with a dream cast: Lion-like Liam Neeson as Collins, Julia Roberts as his fiance Kitty Kiernan, Alan Rickman and Aidan Quinn as chums turned enemies, Stephen Rea as a heroic double-agent who pays with his life for siding with his own people, and the city of Dublin in the '90s playing the city of Dublin in the '20s. Machine guns, explosions, murders, battles, fiery speeches. As far as it goes, the movie is completely engrossing, a dark tide of violence and conspiracy and romance that carries you along, tracking Collins from his arrest in the Easter Uprising of 1916 to the bullet in the head six years later. It's one of the leanest, swiftest epics ever made.
Yet some how the film feels thin, as if Jordan is so consumed with hero-worship he can't quite commit to history. For one thing, he's let the complex, brilliant and icy-cold Collins be played along the lines of noble brute by the hunky Neeson. It's as if he himself, as director and screenwriter, is buying all the Irish blarney about poet-revolutionaries, men of the people who rise from the masses on the strength of their extraordinary rhetorical gifts and guts. But Neeson's hulking country-boy Collins seems to have very little to do with the authentic chap, a steely eyed realist who planned the first terror campaign, was a master of subversive organization and an intelligence executive of the first magnitude.
Instead, it's moony, devastatingly sexy Neeson with his big wet hound eyes and powerful body swaddled in comforting Donegal tweeds carrying on like wee Willie Yeats on a bender after old Maude Gonne turned him down; or Jimmy Joyce, drunk as a skunk, blundering about on a bicycle, his head full of smutty lyrics about his darling Nora Barnacle. Where's the guerrilla warrior, the assassination planner, the jailbreak genius; where's the big fellow the Irish still call "The Man Who Won the War"?
Another distancing problem is the complexity of Irish politics, at least as we poor Yanks experience it. "The Troubles" of the late teens and early '20s are well-known, pitting the Irish revolutionary generation against the British military and intelligence establishments; so is the bleaker period when the glamorous boyos fought the Blacks-and-Tans, a thuggish and vicious paramilitary outfit the Brits invented to do the dirty work as the war got too nasty for their delicate tastes.
But far and away the majority of "Michael Collins" takes place in the problematic Irish Civil War, a far more obscure conflict that pitted Fenian against Fenian over the issue of the treaty Collins negotiated in London, which partitioned the country and laid the seeds for the still bloody agonies gripping British-controlled Northern Ireland.
Ultimately, history says, Collins waged war against his own kind with artillery supplied by the ever-helpful Winston Churchill in honor of his treaty. But for someone who has no opinion of the efficacy of the treaty, that conflict is meaningless: It's just more blood being spilled. And it's difficult to believe the arc of the character, which purports to take Collins from terrorist to humanitarian statesman, when in our last glimpse of him he's running about in some kind of tin-pot field marshal's uniform, bellowing crazily while surrounded by other armed soldiers. You wear the uniform, you may catch the bullet in the brain: That's the price of doing business.
In its more intimate concerns, "Michael Collins" is somewhat more satisfying. As comrades, then enemies, both Quinn and particularly Rickman, as the weaselly, ever pragmatic Eamon De Valera, are impressive; even the wan Roberts does much better with the Irish accent than she did in "Mary Reilly" a few months back.
If it's sweep you want, sweep is what you get; as a serious examination of a complex man, "Michael Collins" falls short.
Starring: Liam Neeson, Julia Roberts and Alan Rickman
Directed by: Neil Jordan
Released by: New Line Cinema
Rated: R (Violence)
Sun score: ***
Pub Date: 10/25/96