Slouching Toward Mayhem

NEIL JORDAN'S MOST HAUNTING movies--""Mona Lisa,'' ""The Miracle,'' ""The Crying Game''--arise out of a private dreamscape where obsessive men pursue their romantic follies to forbidden dead ends. These movies may start in the real world, but they spin inward toward fantasy. That is why Jordan's epic Michael Collins seems such a radical departure. He's stepped onto the public stage of history, confronting the nightmarish subject of 20th-century Irish politics.

Michael Collins is not a familiar name to most Americans. To the Irish, he is either a great romantic legend--the freedom fighter who brought the British Empire to its knees in 1921--or the man who sold out the revolution by signing a treaty with the English which brought about the partition of Ireland. In Jordan's view, Collins--strikingly embodied by Liam Neeson--was a grand, contradictory and tragic figure, a master of guerrilla warfare and martyr to the cause of peace whose death, at 31, at the hands of an Irish assassin, robbed Ireland of its greatest hope for the future.

Clearly, this is a subject Jordan cares about passionately, but he hasn't found a form to make us share his passion. Unless you come to ""Michael Collins'' with strong feelings about its hero, it's unlikely you will be deeply engaged. Jordan's ambitious, handsomely shot film has a number of virtues, not the least of which is its attempt to take the long, tragic view instead of merely cooking up easy, partisan emotionalism. But as a movie, it's curiously remote.

This is not for want of action. There's ample demonstration of its hero's talent for ""bloody mayhem.'' Collins was the military genius behind the republican effort that fought centuries of British domination, and in organizing a secret army to combat the better-armed enemy, he invented guerrilla tactics that would be copied later by Mao and Yitzhak Shamir. With the help of a well-placed turncoat (Stephen Rea), he was able to locate and assassinate his pivotal British enemies inside Ireland. Jordan's flashiest set piece is his staging of Bloody Sunday, when Collins's men fan out across Dublin, eliminating their targets in surprise attacks. Jordan crosscuts between the shocking killings and the hotel room where Collins woos his love, Kitty Kiernan (Julia Roberts), while awaiting word of the death toll. The resemblance to the great baptism/bloodbath montage in ""The Godfather'' is obvious--and unfortunate. Jordan doesn't seem to intend the irony that his juxtaposition implies. He plays it for doomy romanticism, while the viewer notes that Collins never seems to dirty his own hands.

Collins's love affair with Kitty is meant to be central to the drama of betrayals, for she was the girlfriend of his best friend, Harry Boland (Aidan Quinn). The rancor left by this betrayal is shown as one reason the two men end up on warring sides of the civil war that breaks out after Collins signs the peace treaty with England. The love triangle is historical fact: that it fizzles on screen is also a fact. The fault lies both with the rather wan Roberts and with Jordan's failure to write her a part: all we know about Kitty is that she always shows up wearing a new, and improbably smashing, outfit.

Scoundrel: The most controversial aspect of ""Michael Collins'' is its portrait of Eamon De Valera, the leader of the Irish nationalists (and future president). Jordan, following the line of Tim Pat Coogan, who has written books on Collins and De Valera, portrays him as a vain, Machiavellian scoundrel who resented Collins's success and sent him to England to negotiate a peace, knowing that whoever accepted a compromise would be vilified at home. Alan Rickman's bizarre, mannered De Valera seems to have been invented by Lewis Carroll: it's hard to accept this giant twitchy rabbit as the elder statesman of the Irish Republic.

Neeson, however, cuts a strong, likable figure, enabling us to believe that Collins was a man torn between his talent for violence and his distaste for it. Good as he is (he won the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival, where the film won the Golden Lion, the highest honor), Neeson can't singlehandedly bring this drama to life. The demands of the historical epic form seem to hobble Jordan's imagination. He's a director who's at his best when he can follow the dark logic of his own subconscious. In trying to do right by Collins and illuminate the hornet's nest of fratricidal Irish history, he's made his most conventional film. There's a great story in here, but its full harrowing power never blossoms.