Opening today at the Dupont Circle and K-B MacArthur, "The Long Good Friday" scarcely justifies the bedazzled press it's received. More often than not the film's studied explosiveness and viciousness is inadvertently comic. As a London crime czar threatened with a mysterious wave of sabotage just as he hopes to close an ambitious development deal, Bob Hoskins resembles a frothing-at-the-mouth, bulldog version of Ben Gazzara, but his wrath somehow kept evoking memories of William Bendix moaning "What a revoltin' development this is!" or Jackie Gleason roaring "Pow! Right in the kisser!"
Not exactly an oil painting, Hoskins combines curiously freakish features--a jawline that recalls King Kong when he gnashes his teeth and little ears as pointy-tipped as Mr. Spock's--with a thickly muscled, fireplug body. Best known for originating the role of the sheet-music salesman in the TV production of "Pennies From Heaven," Hoskins tends to ham up the intimidation number in "Good Friday" in an oddly risible way. He cuts a coarse, beefy figure that imposes bulk, but it's bulk without a persuasive, and indeed obligatory, illusion of menace.
The long Good Friday of gangster Harold Shand, who has supposedly controlled the London mobs for 10 peaceful and profitable years, is actually prolonged over two days of frustrating setbacks. All over town his trusted thugs are being lured into murder traps and bombs are going off or being uncovered at his classiest establishments. Despite the constant reverberations, Shand is determined to keep up pretenses for fear of alienating a visiting American mobster, Charlie, played by Eddie Constantine, the venerable expatriate tough guy who has been a handy presence for French directors of the past generation or so, notably Godard, who cast him as the lead in "Alphaville."
Shand seems a trifle silly when he persists in conning his guest of honor about the sudden epidemic of murders and demolitions. He's still trying to softsoap Charlie moments after the restaurant they were approaching blows up. Pleading a leaky gas main, the host lamely jokes, "I'm afraid the dinner got a little bit burnt." How can you hoodwink a fellow hood about a situation this critical? Restoring a measure of plausibility, Charlie refuses to be hoodwinked and advises Shand to pacify his domain within 24 hours or look elsewhere for business partners.
A grotesquely contradictory sort of antihero, Shand is depicted as a chauvinistic Londoner whose resentment of rivals like the Yanks and IRA terrorists must strike a responsive patriotic chord. At the same time he's obviously a monstrous hypocrite, preoccupied with socially visionary, potentially beneficial building schemes that ultimately depend on corruption and intimidation.
The mixture might have been more sinister if indicated more subtly, in the manner of "The Godfather." Shand always seems overdrawn and overplayed, sometimes to the edge of bathos. For example, Hoskins is allowed a lengthy, blubbery eulogy for one of the murdered henchmen that outshames Hamlet's neurotic, self-serving outburst at the gravesite of Ophelia. As he keeps ladling on the grief, you can't help noticing how the other actors have to stand around and restrain themselves from fidgeting during this peculiar histrionic solo. Since the dear departed has also been portrayed as a notorious homosexual cruiser, the boss' fondness introduces a fleeting question or two about the nature of their palship--evidently misleading, because Shand and his mistress Victoria, played by Helen Mirren, are envisioned as devoted sexual and business partners.
Director John Mackenzie's presentation of the gangster milieu reflects a similar kind of miscalculation writ large: It's not so much authentic as exhibitionistic. You're primed to await the next explosion, the next tirade, the next atrocity, the next grisly killing. The violent payoffs have impact, all right, but it's impact of a hollow, unpleasantly ludicrous sort.
The sequence utilized in the display ads is fairly typical of the picturesque pointlessness of the brutality: Shand orders several associates to be interrogated at a secluded slaughterhouse while hanging from their heels on meathooks. After a brief hearing he decides to believe their protestations of innocence, a resolution that makes the form of torture look rather overproduced--the work of a gang boss more interested in staging theatrical spectacles than locating the sources of treachery (which naturally turn out to be much closer to home).
Still, this episode sets up an exchange of dialogue I'll always cherish: "Where do we meet?" "Two hours from now at the abattoir." Come to think of it, "Meet Me at the Abattoir" would be a sensational title.