“I’ve never met a cautionary tale before.”
I’ve been trying to force that sentence out of my head since it popped in on the subway. At some point earlier in life – probably High School – I developed a reflex of hatching snarky zingers for every possible situation and holstering them just-in-case; the illusion of quick wit in place of confidence. (In that respect, it’s similar to my reflex of padding press-event reports with personal anecdotes.) I’ve lost count how many times it’s saved me from getting slapped versus times it’s gotten me slapped.
I’m in the upstairs area of an Irish pub in downtown Boston, seated with a sampling of fellow web-based movie critics. Across the table from us are actors Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus and Billy Conolly – the stars of “Boondock Saints II” – and Troy Duffy, the film’s director. Duffy, as it happens, is seated opposite me… and, as it also happens, my unasked-for zinger intends itself for him.
In context, I say with whatever modesty possible, it’s a good line: “Cautionary Tale” neatly encapsulates Duffy’s existence as a pop culture figure. While legions of “Boondock Saints” fans would have it otherwise; most of the cinephile world knows him from “Overnight,” a documentary following the sudden rise and calamitous collapse of his career during production of “Saints” – a collapse, the documentary strongly suggests, resulting from Duffy’s own out-of-control ego. The figure glimpsed in the film is, literally, a walking “don’t” list: An aspiring filmmaker who treats his unprecedented success as the long-overdue recognition of his own self-assured greatness, rather than a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“I’ve never met a cautionary tale before.”
So, it’s kinda true. And delivered correctly, it’d be funny. The sort of deadpan that someone would toss off in some arch, anachronistic hard-bitten crime movie like… well, like “Boondock Saints,” honestly. And in that movie, it’d be followed by a false-tease of tense silence… then the guy on the receiving end would laugh, declare that the joke teller “had some balls on him” and they’d all get back to planning the heist or whatever. In real life, on the other hand, one gets the sense that it’s the sort of thing that’d land a movie journalist on some mythical studio “jerk list” of people that the talent doesn’t want to talk to.
But more importantly than that, it simply seems like a real dick move. Whatever was or wasn’t accurate about “Overnight,” Duffy has fought back from one of the most spectacular falls in late 20th Century film history. “Boondock Saints” was a near-implosion that almost ended him, but instead became a slow-burn cult classic, and now he and the whole cast have reunited for a sequel. That’s an impressive feat, and the sheer resiliency commands a certain respect. What really gives me the right to dump on the guy in the midst of what can only be called a personal triumph, especially since I liked both movies?
So I shake Duffy’s hand, then the rest of the cast, and after the introductions we all sit down and get to it. The actors seem oddly tickled to learn that this particular group all hails from the internet side. “The Dot-Communists!” Billy Connolly declares us, to a giddy response from his fellows. We’ll learn, subsequently, that there’s rather little that one of the quartet can say that won’t elicit a giddy response from the others. “This is how it is on set,” Duffy mentions more than once, and I believe it. The infectious onscreen chemistry shared by Flanery and Reedus’ characters – self-styled urban vigilantes working out Irish-Catholic angst through gunplay – is the same chemistry displayed here in person. Flanery is a live-wire, spontaneously slipping in and out of his real voice and a repertoire of accents and impressions, while Reedus leans over the table with an eerie, captivating confidence seemingly more suited to a rock frontman than an action star.
As becomes quickly apparent, Connolly – “Il Duce” for you Saints fans – dominates the conversation from the actor/director side. It makes sense: Having begun his career in stand-up comedy, he probably has more experience at “working the room” than anyone else in attendance. He’s really something to behold in person, that kind of boisterous, fascinating, Falstaffian figure that’s not supposed to exist anymore. There doesn’t seem to be a question anyone can ask that doesn’t inspire him to tell a bawdy joke or a story. One interviewer asks about weapons training for the film, and Connolly’s answer becomes a stream of consciousness journey from watching his own “long-haired hippie” persona vanish as he learns to wield his firearms action-hero style, then later reaches back to anecdotes about a military stint.
The whole thing is fairly surreal. So few films today are tied so specifically to a real place, or feature characters so closely related to the demeanor of their performers. You can’t go to Hobbiton for an interview with a waist-high Samwise Gamgee, or to Gotham City to chat with slick, difficult-to-locate-at-night billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne – neither place exists, Sean Astin is actually rather tall and slick Bruce Wayne is actually genial Welsh-born Englishman Christian Bale. Yet here I am in Boston (to be fair, not a huge stretch since I live here,) in the exact sort of local Irish pub the Boondock Saints would keep company in, more or less shooting the shit with the McManus Boys. Strange world.
Still, my attention continues to drift back toward Duffy. It’s partly because the only prepared question I’ve got left that hasn’t yet been asked by someone else is mainly for him, but it’s also got a bit to do with the unexpectedness of his demeanor. Calm, gracious and to-the-point, he’s as far removed from the living caricature from “Overnight” as one could imagine – either that film was grossly unfair, or he’s secretly the best actor at the table, or (perhaps most likely) spending close to a decade in “director jail” has mellowed him for the better.
A hole opens in the discourse, and I figure now is as good a time as any. I ask Duffy what is, admittedly, a total fanboy question: Did he know prior to casting him that actor Gerry Parkes – who plays the Saints’ Tourettes-afflicted bartender friend – was already something of an icon to twenty-somethings for having been “Doc” on Jim Henson’s “Fraggle Rock,” a bit of trivia often noted as one of the components to the first film’s slow-burn cult status among that particular age group?
“No,” he answers emphatically, then clarifies that he hears this one a lot, but to this day actually has no conception of what “Fraggle Rock” was. I’m obviously not the only person sitting on the press side of the table who’s slightly surprised at this, but in a way I regard it as somewhat illuminating of Duffy’s creative headspace.
It’s almost become a cliché that filmmakers of this generation (he was born in 1971) tend to be Peter Pans with an artistic comfort-zone grounded in the pop-culture of early youth (even if not necessarily their own early youth) but while Duffy’s work is certainly infused with nostalgia and cultural-reference, it seems to go back only into his late teens. It’s hard to imagine him joining other “edgy” action filmmakers of his age group in signing on to direct films based on action-figure lines or offbeat picture-books (not that there’s anything wrong with that), and it implies that the two “Saints” films’ self-conscious pining for the action-movie masculinity of Bronson, Eastwood and The Duke is more than just throwaway humor.
In any case, the interview quickly slips back into a raucous blur as Flanery, Connolly and Reedus take the opportunity to exchange their impressions of Parkes – whom they agree is a “lovable curmudgeon” of a fellow. And, soon enough, that was it. Time to clear out, shake hands again, and make way for the next group of press. Not the most earth-shatteringly informative interview on the planet, I realize, but these events are for promotion – not necessarily “news.”
Back out on the street, going over my recorded notes and scanning for a hotdog vendor with mustard other than plain yellow, my mind goes back to the strange cinematic journey at which I’ve just gotten a peek. Sure, it makes sense that Troy Duffy would be even more aware of his post-“Overnight” infamy than us in the press, and that the lack of resemblance between him now and him then is no great accident. Even still, I can’t help but note how quick we are to declare a story “over” in the world of film, and how often it turns around. A few days after this interview, “Boondock Saints II” would open with the 2nd highest per-screen box office take in the country despite a limited release. These are, at the end of the day, somewhat silly films, but something is definitely connecting.
“I’ve never met a cautionary tale before”… and I’m not sure that I did today, either.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.