I always have to appreciate it when films are up front and honest with me. For instance, Fifty Dead Men Walking opens with a title card telling us that it was based on a true story. The next title card informs us that some of the characters and situations that are shown in the film may not be represented all that closely to reality. I mean, that’s the case in most of the films that claim to be based on true events, and we know that a lot of dramatization and embellishment occurs, but it’s always nice for a film to be honest with us, isn’t it?
Our tale begins sometime in the 1980s, and follows Martin (Jim Sturgess), a criminal selling stolen goods in Northern Ireland. I don’t know how much you know about Irish history, but this film wants you to believe that it was a pretty nasty time around there. Protestants and Catholics were at war, but more importantly, the English were at war with the rebels. That’s what really matters in Fifty Dead Men Walking, as this is a film that will focus on the wheelings and dealings of both sides.
Martin is first recruited by the IRA, a group of “volunteers” dedicated to removing the English from Irish grounds, or something like that. I’m sure they had better goals than just that, and probably thought of themselves as freedom fighters, but that’s not how the film portrays them as, so let’s just stick to what we see here. He’s recruited first as a driver for certain members of the group, and proves himself a valuable member to their operation. He’s fearless, a good driver … and that’s enough for them.
Meanwhile, Martin is being spied on by a man named Fergus (Ben Kingsley). Fergus convinces Martin to become an informant, allowing the British police to keep tabs on the rebels, spoil their parties, and so on. It’s a deadly game that Martin is playing, and you might think that this will provide a great source of tension. Unfortunately, it doesn’t for most of the time you’re watching Fifty Dead Men Walking, as the plot becomes so routine that by the end, it doesn’t even matter what real world ties the film has; it’s become fiction, and not unique fiction either.
Take any film in which someone plays dual sides in which both groups might kill him at any moment, and you have this one. The setting helps, and if something was actually done with this setting, it might have actually made a difference, but since it’s largely ignored in favor of things that we’ve seen time and time again, the film gets predictable and boring really fast.
This will be especially unbearable for those viewers not familiar with accents used, as the dialogue is sometimes difficult to understand. I know that’s not exactly a flaw in the film, as it’s trying to be authentic to the place and area, but I know people who found it difficult to understand at times, which made experiencing the film not exactly the most pleasurable thing around. Take that as a warning, I suppose, and if you can, I would recommend turning on the subtitles on your DVD or streaming service.
What helps the film stay watchable are the performances. Jim Sturgess is a surprisingly strong lead, filling his character with both the determination and boyhood sheepishness that it requires. Ben Kingsley is strong as always, although his wig made me laugh in a few of his scenes. Turning up in a supporting role is Rose McGowan, although I’m still not quite sure why her character was supposed to be important.
I feel as if I should have learned more from this film. I came away with nothing, really, when I should have felt like I experienced the turmoil that the public went through at this period in history. For instance, I didn’t even care why people were fighting each other, why it mattered, or anything else about the history surrounding the IRA and their plight — if it was a plight. From Fifty Dead Men Walking, I am unsure of why I should care about any of this, when it should be representing true-to-life horrors.
I think the problem is that the copy-paste story got in the way. I was too distracted by a plot that I’ve seen too often before to care, and because the film was more focused on getting all of its story out there than on details or characters, those two things got lost in the shuffle. There’s no immersion with this movie, and as a result, you don’t feel for anything that’s happening. There’s no sense of astonishment that should be ever-present. I kept thinking to myself that a lot of this could have actually happened, but it was done in vain. I couldn’t care, and I felt really bad about that considering what actually faced these people.
Fifty Dead Men Walking is a film that suffers from such a generic plot that takes away from everything else that it has going for it. It’s so distracting, in fact, that it’s hard to pay attention to the devastating events that unfold around our main character. Jim Sturgess is a strong lead, and the supporting cast is strong as well, but it’s hard to care about anything they’re doing when we’ve seen pretty much this exact story — in different locations, admittedly — often enough before. It just gets tiresome, and I only wished that the film could have taught me something about the misery surrounding this period in Ireland’s history.