…mid-morning matinee at the Murciélargo Theatre…
Former bartender turned writer-director Troy Duffy, and his self-inflicted gunshot of a career is an interesting cautionary tale of how not to do business in Hollywood.
In 1997, Duffy, a rough and tough native of Boston’s notorious Southie neighbourhood, wrote and sold his first script, an ultra-violent fable of two Irish-American brothers pledging to wipe out Boston’s gangland armed with unhealthy arsenals of guns and a heavy dose of Catholic guilt. Miramax studios and its head, the self-styled “most powerful man in Hollywood” Harvey Weinstein, whose instinct helped launch the careers of not only Quentin Tarentino, but also other important proponents of the 1990s new wave of original independent filmmakers including Robert Rodriguez and Kevin Smith, had hoped Duffy’s Boondock Saints would lead a second wave of this modern auteur trend into the 21st century for Miramax, a film company that at the time was on the crest of widespread commercial and critical success and progressively changing how Hollywood did business.
With good reason. The Saints script was hip and cool, full of quotable dialogue, strong characters and original stylistic ideas. Weinstein offered Duffy a $15 million budget to make Saints, with full creative control and a hefty piece of the profits. Weinstein even wooed Duffy by helping him buy the Hollywood bar where, up until then, Duffy had worked as a barman struggling to forge a career in Hollywood.
Troy Duffy was the toast of Tinseltown, a town that did not easily offer praise and recognition for a first time director from the wrong side of the tracks. The Saints project, fuelled by Miramax’s fervently streamlined and influential marketing machinery, was the hottest ticket in Hollywood, eliciting interest from some of Hollywood’s top players, including Mark Wahlberg, Keanu Reeves and Kenneth Branaugh. Duffy and his Boston entourage of blood brothers and boyhood friends, including aspiring documentary-makers Tony Montana and Mark Brian Smith whom Duffy allowed no-holds-barred access to the whole process of the film’s production, swore, drank, and fucked their way around Hollywood like lauded princes.
Within a few short weeks, even before production started on the film, and witnessed in painstaking detail through the lens of Montana and Smith – later released to high-acclaim as possibly the first revenge-documentary ever (“Overnight”) – Duffy arrogantly overplayed his hand.
He managed, through a series of nasty Mussolini-worthy altercations with actors, agents and Miramax staff, to piss Weinstein off to the point that Miramax put the Saints into ‘turnaround’, effectively burying the project and influencing the Hollywood community so conclusively that no one in their right mind would defy the Weinstein/Miramax snub and offer to get the film made.
With advance money running out fast, a shunned, yet not shamed, Duffy continued to crash friendships and burn bridges. This defiant egotistical meltdown saw Duffy become both a Hollywood joke and cautionary tale. Unlike Tarentino or Rodriquez, who could still play the moviemaking game by their own rules, while confidently negotiating the Hollywood ground game of studios, talent agencies and the egos of actors by learning early on when to fold and when to raise, Troy Duffy, with a typical blue-collar Irish-American fight-mentality and blind belligerence, just didn’t know how to pick his opponents, and ultimately, when to shut the hell up.
Eventually, by 1999, after much hand-wringing, shouting and egg-shelled guidance from those who remained in his personal and professional circles, Duffy got the chance to finally make the Saints with a smaller independent production company, albeit at a grossly reduced budget, with a third-rung cast, and without the omnipotence of Harvey Weinstein and Miramax in his corner. The final product opened small in US theatres and some lesser independent film festivals, but gained a second life as a cult classic in the video/DVD market, largely overseas, thanks to some great, unexpected performances by Billy Connolly and Willem Defoe, as well as some elements of the film’s original vision that had made Hollywood sit up and notice the project in the first place. Troy Duffy, though, would not set foot on another film set nor get a chair in any Hollywood production meeting for the next eight years.
TRAILER FOR “OVERNIGHT” – the story behind the making of Boondock Saints
Despite its legendary cult status, the original Boondock Saints movie is a truly awful affair. A ugly, clunky film that gets by on a succession of increasingly violent and cartoonish set pieces, that largely involve the McManus brothers – as played by Norman Reedus and Sean Patrick Flannery – killing every motherfucker in the room, but not before saying a quiet Latin prayer to quell their conscience. A sort of Matrix for the junior NRA league, without the philosophy to distract from the gunplay.
While the vigilantism plot resonates with some good visual ideas and clever dialogue, these are few and far between in a movie that really looks like it chose style over substance, a badly executed style that captures the production’s whole uneasy and unpleasant incubation.
Inevitably, thanks to an almost Star Wars-like mythology built around the film and its characters by a small band of fans, Duffy wanted to capitalise on a return to the Saints story. In 2008, finally making parole from his cinematic naughty corner, Duffy was given the opportunity to flesh out, if not complete, the McManus brothers’ journey in Boondock Saints 2: All Saints Day (BDS2).
As a filmmaker, at least, it seems Duffy hasn’t learnt his lesson, and, in BDS2, has made what essentially is the same film. While the movie industry, particularly independent film, has moved on and evolved in the eight to ten years that Troy had been in exile, he is left re-living and re-hashing a fantasy gangland of guns, God and giddy remorselessness with limited sandbox resources, which, in the end product, looks all rather childish and quaint in a post-9/11, Dark Knight movie universe.
That said, the sequel does have a few redeeming qualities. In and amongst one gunplay set piece after the next that falls short of being a full-blown symphony of unapologetic viciousness, and plotlines that recall the original’s more interesting characters and stylistic quirks, no new ground is covered. While a new element of the Boondock mythology – the origin story of the McManus patriarch, played again with surprising gravitas by Billy Connelly – is introduced, the concept seems to be tacked on as an afterthought and ultimately makes the movie feel a lot longer than it is.
While it’s nice to know that Billy Connelly is at least still around, he is but one small part of a larger uneasy ensemble, headed by Reedus and Flannery who bring nothing new to the lead roles that have some strong narrative and character potential but are not considered. Instead, Saints sidekick Romeo, as played by Clifton Collins Jr., gets all the best lines and people’s choice for most lovable character in a movie with very few lovable characters.
Remarkably, and almost unrecognisably, it is Julie Benz who snacks on the scenery in the role as the quirky and strange G-Man (G-Woman? G-Person?) on the Saints’ trail, a character that is a throwback feminine cover version of the original film’s drawling lawman played there by Willem Dafoe. Benz, whose most memorable breakout role – for me, anyway – was as the unsuspecting wallflower wife of an existential serial killer in the Dexter series, plays all out against type in BDS2. Sexy and sarcastic, she also plays it cool and sultry, and while she doesn’t hit all the bases in this consciously hammy homerun of a role, she is by far the best thing about the film.
Ironically, the two Boondock Saints films play less as documents of Troy Duffy’s film writing and making abilities, and more as footnotes to the real story to his tempestuous and volatile relationship with the Hollywood system. That weary tale, as detailed in the Overnight documentary and a handful of more recent recollections of his misadventures available on Youtube, supply the real action and drama, creating a legend worthy to be mutedly murmured about in studio boardrooms and at restaurant tables across Hollywoodland, alongside the great anti-establishment antics of other arrogant auteurs like Michael Cimino, Werner Herzog and the various Alan Smithee folklores.
*Post-script: Despite a cool reception by critics and the public alike of BDS2, both films’ continuing cult status amongst a small audience has prompted Duffy, as of 2011, to begin work on a third Saints movie that would expand the MacManus universe further.