Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008): Thriller Starring Jim Sturgess

Written and directed by Canadian filmmaker Kari Skogland, “Fifty Dead Men Walking,” an intermittently suspenseful and gripping thriller, is loosely based on the true story of informer Martin McGartland, as recorded in his Nicholas Daies’s book of the same title.


I have not read the acclaimed book, but reportedly McGartland has disowned the script, which means that dratsic changes were imosed on it.  This may be the reaspon why the filmmakers claims that the scenario was inspired rather than based on McFartland’s life.


The best element in the film is Jim Sturgess’ dominant performance in the lead role, one that may finally turn him into a viable Hollywood star after turning likable appearances in two mediocre (or below) features, “Across the Universe” and “21.”  


The received its premiere as a Gala Presentation at the 2008 Toronto Film Fest and now, almost a year later, is getting limited theatrical release in the U.S., after playing in the U.K. and other European markets.


Set in Belfast in 1980, where the Irish Republican Army is waging an all-out insurgent war against the British occupation, Martin McGartland (Sturgess) is a young small-time Belfast hustler recruited by a wily British intelligence agent named Fergus (Ben Kingsley) to infiltrate the brutal and life-threatening high-echelons of the IRA terrorist organization at the height of the Northern “Irish Troubles.”


Intelligent and alert, Martin quickly uses his street smarts and natural instincts as a con man to get inside the IRA.  Soon, he starts feeding information to the British, saving hundreds of lives in the process.  But with each successful mission, Martin becomes increasingly in danger of being caught and exposed. 


Meanwhile, Martin romances local girl Lara (Natalie Press) and the couple later marry and begin a family.  The IRA is notoriously ruthless in their strategy: Once an infiltrator has been exposed he becomes a “dead man walking.”  As Martin becomes consumed by his double life, and his British handlers threaten to sell him out if he refuses to continue his counter-intelligence work, he is plunged into a dangerous game in which the stakes are of the highest order, for they endanger not only his life but also his family’s.  

Essaying effectivekly an Irish accent, Jim Sturgess delivers a strong performance, managing to keep McGartland relatively sympathetic throughout. 
Assisted by Skogland’s detailed scenario, Sturges is able to demonstrate, almost step-by-step McGartland’s long and risky journey from being a small-time cheeky opportunist to a top-level informant.


There’s also strong support from Kingsley as the mentor, and Kevin Zegers as McGartland’s best friend Sean.  The only sour note in the good ensemble is Rose McGowan, who is simply miscast, failing to locate the center of her role.


Times and film conventions have obviously changed.  Unlike directors of former espionage films (Carol Reed in “Odd Man Out” and “The Third Man,” Joseph L. Mankiewicz in “Five Fingers”), producer-director Kari Skogland opts for a more emotionally detached approach, retelling the story in sort of a neutral way, giving the audience the opportunity to make up their own minds about McGartland’s actions. 


Problem is, “Fifty Dean Men Walking” is trying to do too much, to be a successful spy story, a love story, an internal struggle reflected in a particular and divisive historical conflict.  Rather than using a straight, linear biographical account of McGartland’s experiences, Skogland has taken selective snapshots from the book, in an effort to concentrate on the thriller aspects and thus heighten the intrigue.  But the script is sharply uneven, and the political aspects are more interesting and engaging than the personal and domestic ones.