If I have not said this before, I will say it here: I have a doctorate in American History where I wrote about how Catholics have been portrayed in American cinema. All the films I covered came out before 1973 when The Exorcist was released. However, if I were to sum it all up, it would be that the majority of the time Hollywood has relied on stereotypes in order to depict members of the largest Christian sect in the United States. Of course, this has usually been unfair to adherents. Catholicism offers a tempting target to moviemakers. Because it is so visual, it provides an easy palette with which to depict religion. If you see a priest or a nun, you know that person is a Christian. If they have a Rosary, they must be a Christian. If they make the Sign of the Cross, they must be a Christian. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all. These are fair, and you can see all these things in today’s film, The Boondock Saints (1999). The film is not, however, very Christian thematically speaking.
There is a long history in the United States of people automatically associating Irishness with Catholicism, and one of the more Irish and Catholic parts of the country, Boston, provides the setting for The Boondock Saints. Two brothers, Connor (Sean Patrick Flanery) and Murphy MacManus (Norman Reedus), live in the epicenter of Irish Boston and lead humble lives. When (of course) on St. Patrick’s Day a group of Russian mob thugs attempt to take over their local bar, they and their stereotypically inebriated friends fight back. When those same henchmen track down the MacManus brothers to their home, the siblings end up killing the Russians in self-defense. This attracts the attention of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe), a flagrantly homosexual and brilliant detective. The brothers turn themselves in for the act, and in the subsequent interview with Smecker it is decided that they acted in self-defense. However, the MacManus boys opt to take it upon themselves to become vigilantes and fight organized crime in their city. Joining them is their friend Rocco (David Della Rocco), a low man in the local Yakavetta crime family. When Rocco is sent to take out a rival group by himself, a suicide mission, he begins to give the MacManus’s the information they need to continue taking out criminals. The Yakavetta family turns to a mysterious assassin known as Il Duce (Billy Connolly) to stop this new threat to their collective lives. However, the Yakavettas manage to capture the so-called “saints” of South Boston, and kill Rocco in the process. Also, Rocco is not the only ally they earn along the way. Smecker, frustrated by his own investigation of the killings and the slow process of the law, decides that he too will feed them information. Seeing that they are about to walk into a trap at the Yakavetta house, he journeys there and gains entrance by disguising himself as a woman. Yet what saves everyone in the end is Il Duce, who hears the boys saying the family prayer over those who have been killed, ferrying them on their way to the afterlife. In the end, they manage to catch up with the Yakavetta boss (Carlo Rota) in court and execute him before all those gathered.
The Boondock Saints is a strange movie to pin down from a Catholic perspective. The only reason I mention Smecker’s sexuality is because it makes up a part of his character, and it is Dafoe at his most raw. It also is a testament to another stereotype about Catholicism, that it is intolerant of people of alternate sexualities. To be sure, the Church still teaches that sex is meant solely for a man and woman married to each other. But neither do we go about condemning them. One of my favorite moments in the movie is when Smecker stumbles drunkenly into a church and falls asleep in the Confessional. When the priest arrives to hear his Confession, Smecker begins to wonder why he was there at all. To be clear, he is also musing about his purpose and beginning to believe that what the MacManus brothers were doing is right. The priest asks him if it is so strange to find himself in the church because who else could have led him there but God? Of course, the next scene Smecker is in a dress and murders a Yakavetta guard who he seduces. I could have also done without the colorful language that he utters against people of his own orientation. Nonetheless, I like to think that his conversation in the Confessional was a moment of conversion.
While I appreciate Smecker’s (at least) half-conversion in The Boondock Saints, the rest of the Catholic custom portrayed here is kind of dumb. I have to laugh every time I see the opening scene, which is supposed to be during a Mass. There are seemingly three priests celebrating (which almost never happens), and one of them is saying the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father). Next comes the homily? No. Also, the clergy are wearing every liturgical color. I guess nobody told the director that there are certain seasons for each shade, and they are never worn at the same time. Also, and this actually is not a minor thing, the MacManus brothers wear their Rosaries. A Rosary, if you do not know, are not necklaces, though they are vaguely shaped like them.
I have been pretty critical of The Boondock Saints, but I want it known that it is somewhat enjoyable. It is rated R, though, and for good reason. It is horrendously violent and there is plenty of sexual content, though only brief nudity. Everyone is swearing a blue streak through the entire movie as well. And while I do like the way the Faith is presented to Smecker, it should be understood that (outside of the Old Testament, I suppose), God typically does not condone such bloodiness. He could do so, perhaps, but the Bible will tell you that, if nothing else, you should present your other cheek to your enemies.