The Boondock Saints, released in 1999, has a typical cult film success story. Originally shown in only five cinemas, the film grossed a mere $30,000 on release, but has since earned over $50,000,000 in first video and now DVD sales. Watching the film, it is easy to see why critics were harsh (the cringe-worthy Irish-American accents which stars Sean Patrick Flannery and Norman Reedus struggle with are impossible to ignore), but also why the film has become irresistible to the film’s cult fan base.
Opening on St. Patrick’s Day, a day which annually sees a revival of Boondock fan enthusiasm online, the film follows two Irish brothers in New York who, after an accidental run-in with members of the Russian mafia, have something of a spiritual awakening, realising that it is their God-given responsibility to purge the city of its criminals and crooks.
Their success, which is due to a combination of skill and unrealistic good luck, sees them following many of the tropes used in more serious crime television shows and films. While they are comically self-conscious of the parody they are making of themselves, they are treated as a real threat by local gang leaders. For a lot of the film the brothers are excitable and react very much like you would expect the average person to if they were thrown into the midst of a crime drama, but they are also intelligent, devout, and not afraid to cry. These emotions are surprisingly gripping and make the brothers oddly endearing.
Adding to the seriousness of the film is the explicit, mind-numbing violence, the somewhat odd use of religious imagery and references, and the pretty heavy, but questionable, moralising throughout. The opening of the film warns us that the greatest evil is ‘the indifference of good men,’ a comment on the ignored violence the writer witnessed growing up. But the film is also full of confusing messages about gender, sexuality, and race, and it is impossible to decipher exactly what the film is saying about any of the issues – the only homosexual character uses more homophobic slurs than any of the others.
This character is the detective investigating the murders, played by Willem Dafoe. His character is a fan favourite because of his peculiar genius which appears while sweeping through the crime scenes as though they are his own personal theatre, while orchestral music plays in the background, and his eventual decision to kill alongside the brothers. His character is one of the odder parts of the film, which is saying something in a film full of random and often irrelevant ridiculousness, but it these oddities which fans seem to love, because they make the film unique and constantly deliver the comically unexpected.
The surprising cult of fans which has formed around The Boondock Saints has led to one sequel already, and there are talks of another. Perhaps the sequels will see the brothers becoming reformed citizens, perhaps they will replace the criminals they are murdering, or maybe, like their accents, they will remain something in between.