Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
October 24, 1996
Liam Neeson is one of those rare actors who can make larger-than-life characters seem totally real. Neeson's gift, which was already apparent in Schindler's List and Rob Roy, is especially powerful in writer/director Neil Jordan's new biopic of Irish guerrilla leader Michael Collins.
The historical Michael Collins is shrouded in mystery. He is reviled and revered in both Ireland and Great Britain. As a person, Collins had a talent for squeezing out of trouble by passing as an ordinary man in the street, yet he could mobilize people with his distinctively persuasive manner. His urban warfare techniques befuddled the British military and helped expedite their withdrawal from Ireland after 700 years of domination.
Ironically, he also helped negotiate the treaty that ended the war between Great Britain and Ireland and stood by the treaty, even though it offended many of his supporters. During the civil war that followed between pro-treaty and anti-treaty forces, Collins was killed while he was apparently on his way to cut a deal with his opponents in the hope of preventing more bloodshed.
Neeson may be a bit long in tooth to be playing "The Big Fella" (Collins was only 31 when he died in 1922), but he has all the magnetism and slyness that Collins had and maybe even more. Whether he's giving a speech, running from the British or romancing his fiancee, Neeson commands attention. While the rest of the cast is generally solid (Yankee thespians Aidan Quinn and Julia Roberts have a little difficulty with their accents), their work almost gets lost in the wake of Neeson's efforts.
Jordan has some difficulty keeping up with his leading man. Jordan has stated, "I tend to write scripts as sparely as possible," and it shows here. Despite the fact that Michael Collins runs over two hours, the characters' motivations are sometimes fuzzy, and the significance of some events is elusive. Jordan also abandons some of thematic complexity that have made his best efforts like The Crying Game and Mona Lisa so intriguing. He simplifies the nature of the conflict. While Collins and his raiders may do some dastardly things, Jordan never lets you forget who the villains are. Casting Alan Rickman (the chief heavy from Die Hard) as treaty opponent Eamon De Valera instantly makes Collins more sympathetic.
Nonetheless, Jordan has mounted an impressive production. With the relatively small budget of $26 million, Jordan and his collaborators (who worked for union scale or sometimes for nothing) have made an opulent-looking and tense film. Jordan's brisk pacing and sharp eye for action scenes make up for some of his narrative fumbles. Chris Menges' (The Mission) cinematography is remarkably expressive. In many scenes, the characters are reduced to eerie silhouettes.
Jordan's Michael Collins may not live up to the legend, but it's a winner in its own right ( R ). Rating: 7.
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