The paddywhackery’s as thick as the Oirish brogues and flavorful caricatures in Robert Lorenz’s In the Land of Saints & Sinners, a deadly serious thriller about violence and redemption in which a local lush pauses to grab his pint as gunfire tears up the village pub. Not since the merry blarney of Wild Mountain Thyme has a movie leaned so hard into Emerald Isle stereotypes, which makes it remarkable that Liam Neeson as a pipe-smoking, Dostoevsky-reading assassin manages to play it straight. Kerry Condon as an IRA spitfire with a fondness for the C-word adds some interest, but this is overwritten, overripe and likely destined to be streaming fodder.
While the film is set in 1974 when The Troubles were still raging, that bitter political conflict is merely background wallpaper for a formulaic faux-Western in the predictable script written by Mark Michael McNally and Terry Loane, which loads up on contrivances and undercuts its attempts at realism with movie-ish hokum.
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This is a film in which a mortally wounded villain hauls off over a field to an old stone church dramatically perched on a hilltop, not so much looking for absolution as for an atmospheric place to die in the moody light of what seems like hundreds of flickering votive candles. It also, God help us, features a young hitman who dreams of making music in California: “People over there just seem free or somethin.’ Enjoyin’ life, you know what I mean?”
The opening has Condon’s ruthless Doireann leading a small team carrying out a Belfast pub bombing, which doesn’t go quite according to plan when a mother and her three young schoolchildren passing by get caught in the fatal blast. Their deaths make it necessary for the IRA footsoldiers to lie low, heading all the way down south to County Donegal. Cue rolling green landscapes, towering cliffs and spectacular coastal scenery, handsomely photographed by Tom Stern with lots of expansive wide shots and dramatic aerial views.
Neeson plays Finbar Murphy, who lives a quiet life in a quaint (they’re always quaint) village called Gleann Colm Cille. The pub of course is the warm heart of the community, with fiddlers fiddling while customers enjoy a Guinness (Babycham for the ladies) and sometimes dance a jig. Finbar passes his time by measuring his target shooting skills in a good-natured contest with local Garda officer Vinnie (Ciarán Hinds) or admiring the garden but declining the dinner invitations of his salt-of-the-earth neighbor, Rita (Niamh Cusack).
The ex-Army man is well-liked in town, where no one knows his secret identity as an assassin, ridding the country of all kinds of scum, as directed by his handler Robert (Colm Meaney, doing regulation Colm Meaney).
Finbar has a favorite dumping ground for his victims, a secluded spot where he instructs them to dig their own graves and then gives them a minute for final thoughts before dispatching them with a rifle and planting a pine tree on the spot. The number of trees of various heights in the vicinity indicates how long he’s been in the game.
When the target of one assignment uses his confessional last moments to reflect on having blown away the black cloud of his past and tried to do something for his community, Finbar has a furrowed-brow epiphany that sends him off to inform Robert that his killing days are done. He advises his handler that future hits should be carried out by Kevin (Jack Gleeson), a junior associate whom he regards as an eejit with an inappropriately frivolous attitude toward taking lives. It’s Kevin who’s the California dreamer, and if you’ve ever seen a movie you’ll know not to bet on him getting there.
Finbar is drawn back in when he notices the tell-tale bruising of physical abuse on sweet young Moya (Michelle Gleeson), daughter of the pub bartender Sinéad (Sarah Greene). Turns out Sinéad was married to Doireann’s brother until he got himself killed. Now her former sister-in-law has descended with her goons to hide out in a shack near Sinéad’s home. It’s another brother, skeevy Curtis (Desmond Eastwood), who’s been putting his hands on Moya, even though everybody knows you don’t mess with a kid around Liam Neeson.
When Finbar takes matters into his own capable hands, Doireann is seriously displeased, swearing vengeance even if she has to take out half the village.
Lorenz was a longtime Clint Eastwood producer who previously directed Neeson in the 2021 action thriller, The Marksman. The American director slathers on a big bold score by siblings Diego, Nora and Lionel Baldenweg to inject a semblance of suspense where there isn’t much and to fuel the idea of a Western showdown between a vicious villain with zero morality and an antihero seeking redemption, which means coming out of hiding with the people who have loved and trusted him.
Neeson does his best to bring integrity to the role, exuding a weary nobility while Condon scowls and snarls and probably spends a lot of time thinking wistfully about Martin McDonagh’s dialogue. But the script is awash in clichés and the movie lacking in excitement despite plenty of guns and knives and bombs. The best that can be said about In the Land of Saints & Sinners is that it’s at least cast with Irish actors, so the accents are authentic, if the same can’t be said for much else.
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