Starring Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, and Kevin Zegers. Rated 14A. Opens Friday, July 31, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas
Fifty Dead Men Walking does a creditable job of laying out the battle lines in the later phases of the Troubles between Irish-Catholic separatists and Protestant unionists in Belfast, or at least between IRA supporters and British occupying forces. Here, the sides are connected by a single informant, Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess), whose apolitical nature and ad hoc hustling skills make him a prime candidate to cross sides repeatedly.
Watch the trailer for Fifty Dead Men Walking.
McGartland’s English handler is played by Ben Kingsley, who takes a nicely understated approach to the career officer who convinces our chancy lad that his actions will save more lives than they’ll take—hence the deceptively zombified title. Irish actor Tom Collins is also effective as the handler’s avuncular IRA counterpart, who insists that sovereignty is a cause big enough to give meaning to even the smallest life. The fact that both armies of God depend on lies, torture, and betrayal to achieve, in the end, just about nothing, adds to McGartland’s overall ambivalence.
The film itself is perhaps paralyzed by ambiguities. Working from a memoir by the main subject—just one reason we know he survived this late-’80s melee—Canadian writer-director Kari Skogland (The Stone Angel), seems overly burdened by all she must cram into two hours. Context-giving chatter, documentary-style proceduralism, archival footage, and stylized violence all vie for dominance. No wonder McGartland’s strained relationships with his passive girlfriend (Natalie Press) and butch IRA pal (Kevin Zegers) suffer. By the time Rose McGowan shows up as an extravagantly sexy operative, you begin to wonder how many movies you will sit through before this is over. iPhone billboards and other anachronistic goofs add to a sense of a job that was rushed, despite strong acting and the best of intentions all around.