Route Irish

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By Patrick Z. McGavin
 
Cannes Film Fest 2010 (In Competition)–In his best movies, like “Kes,” or “My Name is Joe,” British social realist filmmaker Ken Loach reveals a great facility for actors. His strongest work is shaped by wit, immediacy and intelligence who excels at making stories about flawed individuals caught in a world that is often dangerously inhospitable to their concerns.
 
An heir to the tradition of British “kitchen sink realism,” Loach is never one to avoid taking up the good fight. Sometimes he is his own worst enemy. In his new film, “Route Irish,” he loses control over a potentially interesting story by pumping up the narrative with a didactic, sledgehammer tone that wrecks the internal logic and intricacies of the script by his frequent collaborator Paul Laverty.
 
The story of a damaged soul trying to uncover the truth about the death of his best friend in Iraq, “Route Irish” is the director’s first thriller in the two decades since “Hidden Agenda.” A lot of the director’s films are dominated by righteous anger. But in trying to illustrate what he no doubt considers the morally incomprehensible corporate behavior of private security contractors working in Iraq, like Blackwater, Loach has allowed his own emotions to get the best of him and has seemingly lost his own balance and normally tough perspective.
 
The story unfolds in Liverpool in 2007, at the height of the insurgency campaign against American and British occupation forces in Iraq. It opens with the funeral of Frankie (John Bishop), a decorated and courageous soldier who died, under still fully unexplained conditions, as part of a special operations team providing security for a Spanish journalist en route to the Bagdad airport. Frankie and his team were ambushed on “route Irish,” the notoriously difficult gateway between the safe haven of the Green Zone and the airport.
 
Fergus (Mark Womack), his best mate since they were kids, is devastated but also guilty. In the title sequence, the two brash teenagers are shown skipping school and dreaming of far away adventures. Both used the military to achieve their upper mobility, Fergus as en elite special forces operative in the UK’s SAS unit and Frankie as a paratrooper.
 
With both out of the active military, Fergus helps recruit Frankie as a highly paid, ostensible “mercenary,” in the employ of a British private security contractor. Frankie exists only in a couple of flashbacks and low-grade video captured on a cell phone. Laverty’s script has problems from the start Loach never quite adequately attempts to acknowledge, much less transcend.
 
There is little if anything about his inner life, personal convictions or why he’d consented to go over, especially since he has a serious relationship with the attractive, sensible Rachel (Andrea Lowe). Fergus is filled with guilt, not just about his culpability for his friend’s death, but because his penchant for fighting and abhorrent lack of discipline cashiered him from the same unit and he was stripped of his passport and repatriated home.
 
Fergus is naturally suspicious about the nature of his friend’s death and the depersonalized, corporate nature of the private contract culture, exemplified by its top leaders, Haynes (Jack Fortune) and lieutenant Walker (Geoff Bell).
 
The story takes a wholly new direction after Fergus comes into possession of the cell phone that shows Frankie’s unit was involved in the slaughtering of Iraqi noncombatants who were traveling in a taxi. The video unambiguously suggests Frankie’s rival, Nelson (Trevor Williams), a brutish thug, was personally responsible for the deaths.
 
“Route Irish” moves toward parallel tracks of Fergus trying to ferret out incriminating details and trying to learn, through contacts and friends in Iraq, whether Frankie’s death is part of a larger cover up against his growing attraction to the very vulnerable and suddenly quite available Rachel.
 
It is not that Loach is not up to the challenge of the detective story, but at Laverty’s urging, he too often interrupts the proceedings with some bluntly staged and didactic passages about the enclosed, self-serving actions of the private contractors that have proliferated in the aftermath of the US-led invasion. It seems obvious the plot is designed to allow repeated political pronouncements about the tragic nature of the Allied occupation and the extreme suffering, death and destruction felt by the native population. It’s not necessarily inaccurate, but it is also seriously lacks dramatic invention and interest.
 
Even worse, Loach’s righteous anger turns into fury, resignation and retribution that make this one of the most ideologically incoherent of the director’s films. Indeed, it feels like the sensibility of a complete different director. Suddenly, in his desperate efforts to link the contractors and Nelson to Frankie’s death, Fergus has turned vengeful and sadistic. Loach becomes the very thing he has always beheld and he deploys an unnecessarily protracted torture sequence and a final act of revenge that is quite frankly, appalling.
 
After working with photographer Barry Ackroyd (“The Hurt Locker”), Loach returns to Chris Menges, his collaborator on their groundbreaking BBC dramas that made his reputation. Menges creates some occasionally impressive images, like a ghost-like imprint that Rachel’s face makes against Paul’s door panel at his apartment. The movie’s visual quality is otherwise drab, cold and quite frankly ugly.
 
Womack is the latest of Loach’s gallery of the deeply tormented man trying to do right. He’s wiry and intense, but his performance is too one-note to really come off and help make up for the movie’s other shortcomings. Lowe is good, but she’s not given much to do and her part is a little too underdeveloped to make the necessary impact. Like too much of the film, she’s a blank slate the overwrought tone never manages to fill in.