When an inside operation movie is done properly, the plot is ripe with suspense and suspicion. Who can the informer/plant trust? Have they jeopardized their family? What are they willing to do to stay undercover? Audiences have seen this play out many times before in films like Donnie Brasco and The Departed, but in 50 Dead Men Walking the setting is Northern Ireland in the late ‘80s during the Troubles—a period of violent ethno-political conflict between members of the primarily Roman Catholic nationalist community and the Protestant unionist community. The film is based on events depicted by Martin McGartland, and Nicholas Davies in the book Fifty Dead Men Walking: The Terrifying True Story of a Secret Agent Inside the IRA. This depth of history brings an edge to the film that goes far beyond typical mobster fare.
Jim Sturgess made it big in Julie Taymor’s Beatle tribute Across the Universe, but in 50 he shows a side of his acting that really surprised me. He effortlessly steps into the shoes of Martin McGartland—a young swindler who goes door to door selling stolen goods just to get by. Unable to afford a car, let alone the gas to fill it with, he has to bum rides from his friend Sean, played by Kevin Zegers. But his fortune changes one day when British police eager to infiltrate the Irish Republican Army attempt to woo him into their services with a steady job and a car. He reluctantly accepts, and that’s when things start to spiral out of control for Martin.
He soon finds himself with more money than he’s ever known before and the burden of keeping his job as an informant secret from his friends and family. His contact is British agent Fergus, played by the brilliantly tense Ben Kingsley. Martin’s relationship with his girlfriend Lara, played by Nathalie Press, becomes complicated when she finds out she’s pregnant and is kicked out of her house. But over time Martin becomes too consumed in his duties with the IRA to notice what his decision to work undercover has done to his family. Rose McGowan’s performance as Martin’s seductive boss, Grace Sterrin, is surprisingly flat. If anything, it serves as a distraction from the main plot and slows the pace down considerably.
The film finds its footing at the end when things finally come to a head after years of working for the British police. Both Martin and Fergus realize the price he and his family have paid to infiltrate the IRA. The suspense leading up to the conclusion is gripping and intensely emotional due largely to Sturgess’s convincing performance.
50 Dead Men Walking is presented in 16×9 Anamorphic Widescreen. I found the color to be a bit flat. The black levels were underwhelming, especially because a large number of scenes occur in dimly lit night settings. At times the faces of characters could barely be seen. The film gives off a documentary feel, and it fits the gritty feel the film was going for. That makes intense sequences involving torture especially suspenseful.
The audio is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround Sound with the option of 2.0 Surround Sound. The sound effects offer a surprising jolt through the system—especially during scenes involving ample gunfire. In certain action sequences the dialog was struggling to be heard over composer Ben Mink’s raucous guitar and drum-heavy soundtrack. Even more troubling was the Belfast accent many actors adopted for the film. Despite the option for Spanish subtitles, there is no option for English subtitles available in the set-up menu. Luckily, closed captioning worked, because it was often necessary to understand the dialog.
There is also an audio commentary track from director and producer Kari Skogland. She discuses the logistics of filming in Ireland and the complexity of Martin McGartland’s story. She also shares some interesting insights into how the production team preserved the mood of the film’s time period through the lighting and set design.
Deleted Scenes: (8:40) A compilation of deleted scenes from the film without the option of skipping to the next scene.
Behind the Scenes (32:43) A collection of b-roll footage and an inside look into the process of making the film. We get some down-time shots of Jim Sturgess and Kevin Zegers joking around, but most amusing is watching an actor of Ben Kingsley’s stature run through a scene with the director before filming it.
Theatrical Trailer: (1:48)
Personally, I knew next to nothing of the Northern Irish conflict, but that didn’t stop me from becoming fairly engrossed in Kari Skogland’s direction that smartly focused on a taut plot instead of a barrage of action sequences. There is a real story here, and she succeeded in telling it when she dropped the side plots and focused on the main story. Recommended for fans of undercover movies, but also for the excellent performances of Sturgess and Kingsley if nothing else.