Despite being the closest thing Britain's had to its own Vietnam, the Troubles in Northern Ireland have produced only a handful of mediocre, often absurdly partisan movies, and Fifty Dead Men Walking doesn't do anything to remedy the situation by turning an informer's anti-IRA memoir into something rather more guardedly supportive of them. It's easy to understand why the real Martin McGartland so vigorously disowned the film and its departures from fact that saw IRA members taking a more active role in advising the production than he did and, much to his anger, placed him at the scene of murders and tortures he never participated in to amp up the onscreen drama. While it doesn't shirk from their violence and their kneecapping those guilty of `antisocial activities' or the torture and murder of a wrongly suspected informer who is later unjustly condemned by his own father at his funeral, the frequently laughably simplified politics do often read like a Sinn Fein Party Political Broadcast.
It doesn't help that much of the opening of the film offers a very superficial account of the causes of the violence, delivered with almost embarrassed disinterest by Ben Kingsley, setting out his character's stall as the film's Irving the Explainer as our anti-hero's British handler. In the face of such odds, all Kingsley can offer is an accent and an unconvincing wig by way of character in another one of those stiff and mechanical "I-am-acting" performances that he's lapsed into alarmingly often post-knighthood, though Jim Sturgess is much more effectively naturalistic in the lead and could have been even better with something more substantial to work with. Where Kingsley always feels like he's awkwardly acting a role in the movie, Sturgess gives it some much-needed raw energy and bravado, making his role seem far more real than the clichéd writing or the derivative orange-and-teal lensing deserves.
As a film it's fatally hobbled for much of the first half by the need to constantly explain who everyone is and what they represent (virtually every character is introduced by onscreen captions) rather than just getting on with the story. Once it settles down it does pick up, but it never really develops much sense of danger or unease, the generally naturalistic playing not managing to hide the stock depiction and predictable outcome of the undercover scenes. Curiously it's the domestic scenes between Sturgis and an excellent Nathalie Press as his girlfriend that are the most convincing part of the film and the ones where you get the sense that you're watching real people. But for the most part it just ticks along professionally enough with few highs and few lows. Chief among the liabilities is Rose McGowan, whose press conference comments about wanting to join the IRA earned the film much unwanted publicity and whose pure Hollywood glamorous IRA big shot is the film's least convincing performance, albeit a thankfully brief one.
In its best moments, such as a scene crosscutting both the IRA and McGartland's British handler briefing him on he kind of torture he can expect if the other side captures him, you do get a sense of a better, more ironic film bursting to get out, but it seems too compromised by the need not to alienate the perceived prejudices of the Irish-American market (the film is a Canadian co-production) while keeping things simplistic enough for those unaware of the details of the Troubles to work as a Donnie Brasco-style thriller. As such it's even more of a pretender than its anti-hero and too compromised to work effectively as politically charged character study or white knuckle thriller - there's nothing here to set your pulse racing or your palms sweating, let alone exercise your heart or mind.
Extras on the DVD include audio commentary by Karl Skogland, 13 deleted scenes, on set featurette, extract from the book and the theatrical trailer.