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Good intentions

It's an interesting story, but Joel Schumacher's 'Veronica Guerin,' about a crusading Irish journalist, doesn't quite rise to the occasion.

October 17, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

There's something terribly demoralizing about "Veronica Guerin," and it's not just that its subject, a crusading Irish journalist played by the protean Cate Blanchett, was murdered in Dublin in 1996 by criminals she was in the process of exposing.

And it's not that what's on screen is more schlocky than satisfying. "Veronica Guerin" is far from the worst film you'll see this year, and it's far from the worst film its director, Joel Schumacher, has ever made. ("8MM" anyone? I thought not.)

Rather, what's especially disheartening is the large gap between what's on the screen and the significant, meaningful work its creators sincerely believe they've made. Hollywood's familiar overdo-the-obvious sensibility has been so internalized that filmmakers don't just think it's the best way to make money-making movies, they think it's the best way to make any kind of movie.

Director Schumacher (most recently "Phone Booth," "Bad Company" and "Tigerland") is by this point in time practically a virtuoso at the studios' favorite ploy of pandering to audiences by playing on easy emotionalism. With "Veronica Guerin" he managed to do that, as well as indulge some of his darker preoccupations, all under the guise of Doing the Lord's Work. Not wanting to keep those who don't know the real story in suspense, "Veronica Guerin" opens with its heroine's murder. It immediately flashes back to two years earlier when this reporter for Dublin's Sunday Independent decided to change beats. Known for her work on church and corporate scandals, Guerin wanted to write about the hard drugs that were getting more pervasive in her city and the crime lords who were making fortunes off of them.

In case we have any doubt as to her motivations, "Guerin" shows our heroine discovering a neighborhood where discarded drug paraphernalia are practically fetlock deep in the streets. And they show the cutest toddler in all of Ireland playing with a found hypodermic needle. Hey, we're talking problem here.

Schumacher has intelligently said he might not have made "Veronica Guerin" if Blanchett hadn't agreed to take the lead. This is an actress who can play anybody anywhere, who is so thoroughly convincing in her Irishness it's actually a shock to remember she's in fact Australian.

Blanchett's Veronica, like her real-life model, looks quite the modern career woman in her tailored pants suits and short hair. She is, as people say, "bold as brass," willing to be flirtatiously manipulative -- an Irish Erin Brockovich, if you will -- to get the information she needs for her stories.

Like most successful reporters, Guerin has an almost primal drive to find things out. She's relentless and fearless, a bulldozer who goes directly at what she's been warned most strongly against. She so loves her work and believes in its value that not even personal danger dissuades her. "These people," she scoffs, "issue death threats if their laundry is folded wrong."

Blanchett is incapable of giving an uninteresting performance, and her presence is certainly the best reason to see "Veronica Guerin," but it is, finally, not close to her best acting. Because Schumacher doesn't understand subtlety, he has difficulty eliciting it from his actors, and Blanchett's work feels at times one-note and repetitive in a way that it never has before.

Both the film and Blanchett suffer because, as written by Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donoghue, "Veronica Guerin" surrounds its central character with people who have even less dimension than she does. Meanwhile, every hint of emotion is telegraphed with Harry Gregson-Williams' overemphatic score.

Consider a mother (Brenda Fricker) with that old Irish twinkle in her eye and a husband (Barry Barnes) who's certainly the most understanding spouse in the entire European Union. John "Coach" Traynor (Ciaran Hinds) is the most transparently two-faced of informants. And John Gilligan (Gerard McSorley), the inevitable Mr. Big, is a crime lord with a temper more terrible than any 2-year-old's and considerably more muscle to back it up. And isn't that Colin Farrell, Schumacher's hot young protege, showing up to do a tiny cameo, likely because the director thought it would be fun?

Speaking of fun, it's in the depiction of the criminal underworld that we can see familiar Schumacher preoccupations. Here are Dublin's bad guys, dressed in Batman black leather and sleekly sinister black helmets. Here's a particularly unsavory torture sequence (yes, we get to see the results). Here are so many visits to skanky brothels that if you didn't know any better you'd think the director really wanted to do "8MM: The Sequel" and rejoiced when he found the perfect cover story. But that would be unfair. This is the noble story of a crusading journalist who changed people's lives. In case you forgot.


`Veronica Guerin'

MPAA rating: R, for violence, language and some drug content

Times guidelines: Graphic scene of torture and its aftermath, multiple killings and physical attacks

Cate Blanchett...Veronica Guerin

Gerard McSorley...John Gilligan

Ciaran Hinds...John Traynor

Brenda Fricker...Bernie Guerin

Don Wycherley...Chris Mulligan

A Jerry Bruckheimer Films presentation, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Joel Schumacher. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Executive producers Chad Oman, Mike Stenson, Ned Dowd. Screenplay Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donoghue. Story Carol Doyle. Cinematographer Brendan Galvin. Editor David Gamble. Costumes Joan Bergin. Music Harry Gregson-Williams. Production design Nathan Crowley. Art director Julie Ochipinti. Set decorator Paki Smith. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes.

In general release.

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