May 7, 2018
4 reasons why The Boondock Saints has aged very badly
You might get invited to a St. Patrick’s Day party this weekend. You may come decked out in that greenish shirt from the bottom of your drawer. You may eat your fill of the finest Irish dishes, like “various root vegetables boiled for thirty-seven hours” or “that, plus some salty pink meat”. You may crack open a Guinness and let your poet’s soul loose. You might sing along to Thin Lizzy’s “Black Rose” until you grow hoarse. And if your St. Patrick’s Day party is anything like the one I attended last year, your host may wait until his guests get all Jamesoned up, say “I know the perfect way to cap off the night”, and pop in The Boondock Saints.
Why The Boondock Saints? Who knows? The movie has fuck-all to do with Ireland, but that’s also true of 95% of Irish-American culture. Its Irish-ness is superficial, the kind of cartoony Irish simulacrum that Americans eat up with a spoon: in-your-face Catholic imagery, pipey music, the immoderate consumption of alcohol and tobacco, and lilting accents which spit out the word “fuck” in that funny way that rhymes with “book”. This is entirely to be expected in a country where Irish-ness has a bizarre cultural cache that leads more people to claim Irish ancestry than is mathematically possible. So really, The Boondock Saints fits the St. Patty’s vibe to a T.
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If you’ve never seen The Boondock Saints, it’s basically a series of lovingly crafted, hyper-violent setpieces strung together with the barest wisp of an outlandish plot. Two Irish brothers living in Boston (Sean Patrick Flannery and future Walking Dead star Norman Reedus) kill some mobsters in self-defense and thereafter decide to wage a bloody vigilante war against organized crime, motivated by their deep, abiding faith in a religion that doesn’t much like the death penalty and categorically opposes extrajudicial execution. Forget “bloodbath”; Boondock Saints is a blood Jacuzzi. Critics savaged the movie when it finally appeared in theaters in 2000, but it caught fire on the home video market and became a cult smash.
I can see the Boondock Saints phenomenon from both sides. I loved it when I first saw it. It was just the kind of unsubtle, lizard-brained shoot-em-up that would appeal to a teenaged boy steeped in Quentin Tarantino movies, first-person shooters, and virginity. Now, seeing it nearly twenty years hence, I think The Boondock Saints might legitimately be one of the worst movies ever made. I’m honestly disgusted with myself that I ever considered it worth my time. But I wouldn’t presume to unload on you dear readers a rant that would do little but soothe the sting of my shame. Instead, I want to share with you four distinct ways in which I think The Boondock Saints aged very, very poorly—and hopefully inspire a couple of reevaluations of your own.
1. The gunplay hits a little too close to home
Boondock Saints was in development for several years, beginning in 1997 and finally sputtering to a finish in 2000, when it secured a limited release in five theaters. The Columbine school shooting wasn’t officially cited as a reason for the delay and the tiny release, but let’s just say it didn’t help. And that was then. Simply put, the central conceit of The Boondock Saints sure seemed a lot cooler 200 mass shootings ago.
“So what,” you may say, “You can’t have gunfights in a movie anymore?” No, you (hypothetical) idiot. I love movie gunplay as much as the next guy; there are two different posters of a gun-toting Charles Bronson in my apartment right now, so don’t even start. But context matters. The gun violence in The Boondock Saints evokes real mass shootings in our recent history. Watching it now is really uncomfortable.
It’s not just the obsessive, perverse craft that went into every shot, or the way the camera lingers on falling bodies and arcs of splattering blood. It’s the many public and semi-public locales that get shot up, and the many innocent people inches away from ending up as chalk outlines at any given moment. It’s the characterization of the protagonists as young male fanatics from unassuming backgrounds, enforcing their own personal morality on a world they see as irredeemably corrupt, using surreptitiously obtained weapons to do so.
More than anything, it’s how the movie is heavily marinated in our uniquely American gun culture. Both The Boondock Saints and its sequel feature a scene where the McManus brothers visit an IRA type who loads them up with heavy weaponry from his extensive black-market stash. (Hmm, wonder why this guy didn’t make it onto their “Criminals to Kill Later” list?) In each scene, the brothers literally moan and figuratively drool over how sexy all these guns are. Like many gun lovers, they have an eye for weapons that encapsulate their own personalities, with the brothers favoring sleek black Berettas with long suppressors on them, and the Mexican in the second movie buying flashy chrome monstrosities with Mexican flags on the grips. (Seems like a good time to mention that the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas school shooter also had a favorite gun that he “personalized”.)
In light of the tremendous suffering that gun obsession has caused America, these scenes come off as unforgivably tacky.
2. The writer-director is the exact type of man we don’t want in Hollywood anymore
The 2003 documentary Overnight chronicles the story of writer-director and Boston-bred wunderkind Troy Duffy, who in 1997 was tending bar and playing in a band in LA, and in a stroke of unbelievable luck, had The Boondock Saints, his first screenplay, bought by Harvey Weinstein. This unfathomably sweet deal included the director’s chair, casting rights, a soundtrack composed by Troy’s band (with the possibility of a record deal later), and maybe even Weinstein personally buying the bar where Duffy worked and hiring Duffy to run it.
If you’re wondering what kind of mind could produce such an ugly, small-minded movie, watch Overnight for a look into the psyche of this ugly, small-minded man. Success works on his brain like poison. Over the course of the movie, Duffy’s ego balloons to gargantuan proportions and he systematically shits on everyone who helped him become famous. His drunken, loud-mouthed antics killed his miraculous deal, got him blacklisted, and left him penniless, despised, and unable to get a paying gig in Hollywood until the Boondock Saints sequel nearly a decade later.
It’s almost too much to watch in this day and age. If there’s any single personality type targeted by the reckoning of the #MeToo movement, it’s that of Troy Duffy. The ultimate villain of the #MeToo movement, Harvey Weinstein, comes across as the good guy in Overnight by comparison with Duffy, and that should tell you something. Duffy is a boorish, entitled shit-stick who takes his unexpected success as validation that he’s better than everybody, with “everybody” in this case being anyone who happens to be outside the boy’s club that is his entourage. (Maybe the fact that you share a race and gender with 83% of film directors might have contributed to your amazing luck, Troy? Just a thought.) And everywhere he comes up against a woman, he has nothing but disrespect and invective for her. Most notably, when Weinstein puts The Boondock Saints in turnaround, Troy puts the blame not on Weinstein where it belongs, but on Weinstein’s female co-exec at Miramax, Meryl Poster, and continues to suck up to Harvey in pitiful fashion. What an alpha male.
Troy Duffy has never had any sexual harassment allegations leveled against him that I know of, but after watching the way he talks to women for 90 minutes, I’m sure there’s someone out there who has many stories to tell. But even absent all that, based on his work alone, Duffy’s a long way from being the poster child for wokeness. The Boondock Saints has two small female roles: a butch lesbian stereotype who we’re supposed to hate for getting offended at the brothers’ jokes about domestic violence, and Rocco’s junkie girlfriend, whom he berates for “laughs”. Boondock Saints II graduated to having a woman in a starring role, only she happens to be a sexpot FBI agent who wears high heels to work and—spoilers!—is secretly on the brothers’ side, going to ridiculous lengths to protect them at the ultimate expense of her own job. Both movies are crammed to the gills with misogynistic and homophobic jokes, including Willem Dafoe as every horrible gay stereotype at once.
There’s even a groan-worthy scene in the second movie featuring Rocco, the dead sidekick from the first movie, visiting the brothers in a dream after the death of another sidekick, and his attempt to comfort them somehow segues into a “real men smoke, drink, curse, eat garbage, and don’t talk about their feelings” rant pulled wholesale from a bit Denis Leary was too coked-out to finish in 1987. Give me a fucking break with this shit.
3. It tries to hide behind “irony”
The reactionary element in Hollywood, like the one in America at large, is comprised of trolls. And like all trolls, they have a go-to, last-ditch defense for saying, doing, and believing horrible things: “it was satire!” They have this weird cargo cult mentality where they regard words as basically magic incantations; they don’t understand what actual words mean, but they understand their connotations. In the case of the word “satire,” they don’t understand what satire actually is, but they do understand that they can drop it into conversation to excuse words and deeds that they would otherwise have to answer for.
One need only look to the alt-right for recent examples. Ben Shapiro cried “satire!” after posting an extremely racist cartoon to the Daily Wire. Alex Jones tried to claim his whole conspiracy shtick was “performance art” in court to try to get his kids back (it didn’t work). Jones’s colleague, wet-lipped Brit Paul Joseph Watson, has said of his claims that soy products feminize men and his prolific use of the insult “soyboy” that, “It’s just a meme!” (The timing of this statement in conjunction with the revelation that the BrainForce nutritional capsules he sells are chock full of soy was probably just a coincidence.)
Troy Duffy, who fits the “reactionary” mold philosophically if not formally, tried to do this as well, and it’s so pitiful you’ll cry. Both Boondock Saints and its sequel have a similar scene (the two movies are pretty much the same) where Troy Duffy takes a halfhearted stab at doing meta stuff. In the first one, upon arming themselves for their first assault, one of the guys whose names I never bothered to pin down (Sean Patrick Flannery) remarks that they should take some rope on their first mission, as the people in action movies always end up needing rope. “Charlie Bronson’s always got rope,” he asserts. Later, his brother berates him for having to drag around his “stupid fookin’ rope”, but it accidentally saves their asses when they bust through an air vent and shoot up a room while suspended from the ceiling. And in Boondock Saints II, the same fucking guy confesses that he formulated yet another rope-based plan based off the Clint Eastwood film The Eiger Sanction, which, again, should not work, but which again works beautifully.
Based largely off these two scenes, Troy Duffy and Boondock Saints apologists have made the case for these movies as an extended satirical riff on the American action vernacular, with a particular focus on the vigilante film. This is infuriating, because it’s almost too weak a cop-out attempt to even bother mentioning. News flash to Troy Duffy and any other interested parties: if you have your character say “this is a dumb trope” before performing the dumb trope with a straight face, it doesn’t suddenly make the trope smart.
Moreover, the idea that these scenes are supposed to clue you in to the movie being a satire is insulting. Troy Duffy is too incompetent a director to establish a tone that would support such an assertion. He’s too incompetent a writer to say anything insightful about vigilante movies. And he can’t approach the topic of vigilantism with any degree of ironic detachment, because he obviously thinks it’s fucking awesome. If the Boondock Saints movies are satire, then that time I dressed my cat up as Yoda is a parody of Star Wars.
4. The world has caught up with its ugliness
Sure, The Boondock Saints may be gratuitously violent. Sure, all the characters may be ridiculous caricatures spitting tough-guy half-witticisms over each other. Sure, it may promote a reductive and harmful perspective on urban crime. Sure, it may feature a contrived plot driven by a ridiculously uncomplicated conflict, where murdering criminals has no moral or practical complications, and everyone good supports the bloodthirsty vigilantes with all their souls, and everyone who doesn’t might as well be pissing in baby Jesus’s mouth.
But here’s the thing: everything I just said is also true of Death Wish 3, and I adore Death Wish 3. So what separates the The Boondock Saints from the rest of American cinema’s legion of vigilante flicks? In a word: ugliness. The overwhelming ugliness of Boondock‘s worldview, and the obvious relish it takes in rolling in the filth of the human psyche. It plays completely straight that which other movies treat as overblown cartoon or ironic tragedy.
That’s bad in itself, but what makes it infuriating is that the movie’s McManus brothers are psychopaths. They’re the last people who should be “cleaning up the streets”. A reasonable person watching this movie would have to conclude that the brothers just love murdering and do so at the slightest excuse. They don’t even have any justifiable personal motivation for doing it; their “quest” begins because some Russian mobsters closed down their favorite bar.
The movie begrudges them a single humanizing touch: In Death Wish, the first time Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) beats a mugger with a sock full of quarters, he runs home and nearly vomits from the shock. In The Boondock Saints, the first time the brothers massacre a room full of Russian gangsters, they respond with giddy, unmitigated joy. Moreover, they’re quarrelsome and mean, play cruel pranks on their friends and on each other, and at one point they kill an innocent cat while drunk and screwing around with guns. This being The Boondock Saints, this scene is played for laughs.
Even all this wouldn’t have sunk The Boondock Saints if the movie had encouraged us to think about it a little bit, and maybe apply their behavior to its central message about vigilante justice, but it doesn’t. The brothers can do no wrong, because Troy Duffy has already decided you should love them and also vigilantism. The movie unironically applauds everything they do. They’ve been anointed by God; they’re never given any reason to question their own righteousness, and by extension, neither are we. And they’re not only right, but cool. They have slick clothes, gleaming weapons, badass matching tattoos, and say spooky prayers while sending their cowering enemies to a well-deserved afterlife.
Think about this: even 18 years later, young people watch this movie. Young men watch this movie. Young men in the process of constructing their identities, and desperately looking for lessons (on how to be a man, or how to be good, or how to be cool) watch this movie. We owe our young men a better movie than The Boondock Saints.