by James Keeler Rollins
Writer’s Note: This article was originally written and developed in late July/ early August 2017. It was put together before an article was written in the Denver Catholic about how this movie became a part of the conversion experience for future FOCUS missionaries. You can read the article here. Point being that despite how the movie was used in this particular couple’s story, it was not the source from which the couple came to know and grow in their faith and therefore despite its influence in this particular situation, my overall opinion of the movie remains the same. And here’s why.
I have a passionate love for watching and talking about movies. Being Catholic, I also love movies that involve Catholicism, to show our faith in a positive light and to get people to think about the spiritual realities of our world. Now there are good movies, bad movies, Catholic movies, anti-Catholic/ anti-Christian movies. There are good Catholic movies, but then there are the bad Catholic movies, not in the sense that you are a bad Catholic if you watch them, but that these movies do a very very bad job of demonstrating the Catholic theology, faith, and way of life while maintaining a spotlight on Catholicism.
On the social media pages such as Facebook, you may occasionally see a list involving Catholic movies. Sometimes, on the Catholic Geek Facebook pages, there is discussion on Catholic movies and what people think are good Catholic movies worth recommending. Now, because movies are a subjective art where the overall quality and definition of “good” is based on the opinion of each individual person, there’s different takes on what good Catholic movies are. However, I’m getting a little tired of seeing “Boondock Saints” named as a good Catholic movie by good Catholic people on these pages, so I’m here to explain why it is neither a good movie nor a Catholic movie.
For those who haven’t seen the movie before, the basic synopsis is: Two Catholic Irish-American brothers, Conner and Murphy McManus (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus respectively), decide to kill the mobsters and bad guys in Boston. The entire time, they’re pursued by FBI special agent Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe).
Full disclosure: I first saw this movie when I was 18 and barely living my faith. At that time, I thought it was a great, enjoyable action movie. However, over the years as my taste in movies has changed and my dedication to my faith has dramatically increased, I’ve come to see the many strange flaws of this movie. Also, fair warning, this is going to involve some spoilers and some salty sarcasm in the criticisms so…just so you know.
Let’s begin our examination of what makes this a bad Catholic movie by focusing on the “Catholic” elements of this movie.
The Opening Scene/ Mass
Right off the bat, we’re introduced to a bad showing of Catholicism. After words establish our setting onscreen (Boston, St. Patrick’s Day), we hear ominous sounding Gregorian Chant inside a Catholic Church. Based on this intro, you’d almost think this was the beginning of “Spotlight” or “Doubt” or some other movie about the EVILS of Catholicism today.
We open up this scene with a priest in vestments and with people in the pews, so we can assume this is a Daily Mass, hopefully one celebrating the feast of St. Patrick. However, this priest character is dressed mostly in Lenten purple vestments, but with a green stole (the scarf-looking cloth). Is it cause it’s St. Patrick’s Day?
The priest is leading the people in the Lord’s Prayer from an ambo that is placed in the center aisle of the Church, right in front of the steps leading to the altar. Poor Church design maybe, but at least they’re doing the Lord’s Prayer so we’re almost ready for Communion…right? Well, Purple Priest ends with “For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, now and forever” without the extra priest’s prayer we’re used to at Mass, so that’s bizarre. Then, another priest, apparently the Monsignor of this parish, who is dressed in all white vestments, steps up to speak while Purple Priest takes a seat. Monsignor thanks Purple Priest for being their “guest speaker”. Is this a Mass or not?!
The brothers, who have been in the pews this whole time, eventually walk up to the altar during Monsignor’s talk without anyone stopping them or reacting like this is the craziest thing they’ve ever seen, except for Purple Priest, who apparently realizes how unorthodox the whole thing is, but a third priest, who is in white vestments but with a purple stole (What?!) stops him from stopping the brothers.
The one shining moment in this scene is when the brothers end up kissing the feet of Christ on the Crucifix. A noble gesture of holiness, perhaps? Usually when someone does so, it is out of recognition for the sacrifice of our Lord and how we love Him because of how He loved us. It is a beautiful sign to be sure, one that I often considered replicating during my undergrad days because we had a very similarly large wooden crucifix on the wall behind the altar. However, they quickly move away and EXIT THE CHURCH while the Monsignor is still talking. I’m guessing there’s no Eucharist at whatever this thing is, and who knows if the brothers would’ve received the Sacrament had it been available.
Monsignor’s talk (I really don’t know whether to call it a homily or a sermon because I CAN’T TELL IF THIS IS A MASS!) begins “I’m reminded on this holy day (St. Patrick’s Day)” before going into a spiel about a woman being murdered and nobody doing anything about it. Because, when we think of St. Patrick, who broke free from slavery and evangelized an entire island of pagans, we think of the bystander effect when a crowd of people witnesses a murder. Monsignor also says “We all must fear evil men”, which he should realize is a total crap statement because Christ himself said “Fear ye not them that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul” (Matthew 10:28, Douay-Rheims translation) .
Fun fact: According to IMDB Trivia, the church building used for filming this scene is actually Protestant since none of the Catholic churches would allow filming of a movie that they objected to.
Within the first twenty minutes of the movie, we come across three nuns in full habit sitting in the hospital. They are a puzzling sight, because they appear to be worn out and possibly injured, with specks of blood sprinkled across their face and their habits. They are there with literally no back story or reason. What are they doing? Are they involved with the brothers, who happen to be in the same hallway? Do they work with the hospital or are they there being treated? We don’t know, and they’re only onscreen for like one minute overall! I’m guessing the movie is trying to infer that they’re there because it’s a Catholic hospital, which is only a guess based on the fact that a character dips his fingers in a font of holy water and does the sign of the Cross when he enters the hospital. An even better guess is that these nuns are there for literally no reason other than comic relief, because of course it’s funny when some profanity is shouted around the nuns!
|Get it?! Cause profanity is funny and nuns are super uptight!|
The silliest part is that their reactions are the dullest things in this movie since they have the most bored expressions on their faces the entire time. And we don’t even hear these ladies speak! This is all that we see from the only full habit nuns in this movie.
In that first scene of the movie, we’re introduced to the brothers kneeling in their pew. They appear to be praying the Rosary from the Rosary beads…that are hanging from their neck?! These Rosaries are treated like identification accessories, giving the brothers an image that perhaps helps the audience visually realize the Catholic religiosity of the brothers. However, their Rosaries don’t even have Crucifixes! They’re just Celtic crosses…cause ya know…the McManus brothers are Irish! And we never see them praying the Rosary at any other point of the movie. To me, the biggest issue of including the Rosary in this movie is that it made it seem like a good idea to actually wear the Rosary around the neck. I admit to having done so with mine during my early college years, until one of the older Catholic men in our friends group pointed out how dumb that was. Ultimately, the Rosary is not a necklace, an accessory, but rather it’s a powerful tool and weapon for us to use in spiritual warfare, not to be fashionable.
The Confession Scene
Another argument for what makes this a “Catholic” movie is a scene that takes place in a confessional. Keep in mind for this entire scene, two guns are put at people’s heads and there are multiple expletives. First, the priest, who at least is wearing all of the valid priest’s attire for this moment as far as we can tell, did not start with the sign of the Cross or “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.
Smecker is seeking counsel and advice in the confessional, and the priest automatically assumes the man is not religious even though he never said anything like that. Smecker says he came to the confessional because of “ethics”, so at least the script is acknowledging the Church is a place of certain ethical standards and even non-Catholics are aware of those standards. Smecker points out that the brothers doing all of their executions as if they have God’s permission, to which the priest rightfully begins to object that God doesn’t justify straight up murder, but is shut up by a gun.
|“Killing people is wrong.” “I’ll kill you for saying that, dude!”|
The priest says a soul is what gives us feelings, like a conduit through which the Lord speaks to us (that’s prayer, buddy boy! Didn’t you learn anything in seminary?). The priest does try to do some evangelizing by brainstorming what God is doing through Smecker by bringing him into the church that morning. “It’s easy to be sarcastic about religion”, the priest says, giving us a glimmer of hope that this movie can at last shed some positive light on religion The priest is allowed to go on a roll with his evangelizing words. Smecker says “I want to stand for what I believe in”, to which the priest replies, “First you have to know what your beliefs are” and then later “The laws of God are higher than the laws of man”.
While still problematic, this scene ended up being a lot better during my rewatch than I remembered from the old days. That is, until the weird exit where Smecker begins to make the sign of the Cross but then makes an “Ah, forget about it” face, stops, and leaves awkwardly, letting us know that he’s not really converted or at least not ready to go deeper in Catholic theology. Once Smecker leaves and the guns are put away, Rocco, our non-religious moral compass, then throws a little poor Latin (“dominus ominus”) to the priest and furthermore tells the priest that he cannot break the seal of the confessional by telling anyone what went down just now.
There are a few moments sprinkled in the movie where the character Il Duce narrates, in an attempt to sound cool and give the movie thematic justification. Only half of the narration provided by Il Duce, which is supposed to sound Bible-based, is actually from Scripture. The rest, like Tarantino’s Ezekiel 25:17 in Pulp Fiction, is made up crap. The narration utilizes Scripture-esque quotes mainly for the audiences’ benefit to know the POV of our main characters and their justification for why they do what they do.
The first words of narration we hear come from Deuteronomy 32 (Verse 41). The script uses these words: “When I raise my flashing sword, and my hand takes hold on judgment, I will take vengeance upon mine enemies, and I will repay those who hate me. Oh, Lord, raise me to Thy right hand and count me among Thy saints”
Later, when they are spending the night in the police holding cell, the brothers are both woken in the middle of the night by Monsignor’s little talk in the first scene before we hear the narration add in a little Genesis 9 (Verse 6) on us: “Whosoever shed man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed. For in the image of God made He man”.
The most confusing thing about these quotes is not knowing which translation they’re supposed to be based on. Overall, this feels too much like taking Scripture out of context in order to uphold one’s slanted POV.
There’s a “prayer” that the brothers say, just as they are about to execute their enemies. Basically, it’s a prayer where the boys pretend to be the soldiers of God, doing God’s will, in order to justify their killings. This is one of the most memorable quotes from the movie, one that I think some Catholics admire as a positive takeaway from the movie. The most Catholic thing I took away from this prayer was the Latin words used for the Holy Trinity. Other than the opening scene and the occasional sign of the Cross, the times they “pray” this prayer are the only moments when we see the brothers do any praying. However, there’s a difference between being in battle and praying to God for strength, victory, and protection, and then praying that you’re pleasing God by purposefully executing people without giving them a chance for repentance, justice, or mercy.
The Courtroom Climax
At the end of the movie, the brothers, newly reunited with their father, burst into a courtroom to publicly execute the movie’s villain, the Italian mafia boss. They intentionally make a ruckus because they’re trying to make a public statement to everyone about their purpose and existence. You’d think, as Catholic men, they’d be doing a little evangelizing and spreading some Catholic theology along the way. However, their statement is so terribly un-Catholic and so weird, that I have to break down the worst parts, CinemaSins style.
–“We do not ask for your poor or your hungry.” “We do not want your tired and your sick”: These are literally the types of people that Christ calls us to help! You’re saying you’re intentionally ignoring the neediest people. Sure, everyone is called to give aid in different ways depending on their abilities (one body, many parts, all that good stuff), but everyone is STILL called to focus especially on the poor, the hungry, the destitute, the people who are in most need. So you are publicly stating you’re intentionally defying our Lord’s command?
–“Do not kill. Do not rape. Do not steal. These are things that every man of every faith can embrace.”: Um, I think history has shown that certain men of certain faiths do not wholly embrace your little philosophies there. Don’t act like you fully encapsulated the Ten Commandments just in those three “Do nots” either. Also, you’re literally about to kill somebody, so how are you embracing that first statement again?
-“We urge you lesser forms of filth, not to push the bounds and cross over into true corruption”: Translation-We’re okay if you sin and choose to do bad things, just make sure it’s none of the really bad stuff that gets you put in jail or mistreats other people. Also, what is true corruption? Is any human being truly corrupt? Ultimately a true Catholic would say “Go and sin no more!” and that’s it.
-“And we will send you to whatever god you wish”: According to the Catholic Church, there is only one God who judges a person to Heaven or Hell. Different people of different faiths don’t get to choose their own afterlife experience in the end. Unless you’re trying to succinctly say that bad guys see Satan as their god and therefore would wish to go to Hell with Satan, which I’m sure you’re not, this statement makes no theological sense in the Catholic tradition.
|Do these guys look that saintly to you right now?!|
The brothers Conner and Murphy McManus, our protagonists, are supposed to play the role of the good Catholic boys, the “Saints”. Here’s a list of all the “saintly” things we see the brothers do in this movie:
-Our first intro to the brothers outside of the church? Slapping each other with the meat products they work with at a factory and punching a feminazi after she kicks one in the balls.
-They tie a guy down to a bar counter and literally set the guy’s buttocks on fire!
-Murphy takes a cup of water or coffee in his hand and playfully splashes the policemen he is hanging out with. We hear him say “Body of Christ” while he is doing so, which makes it hard to tell if he is mocking Baptism or the Eucharist (or both?).
-They make the sign of the Cross before going into action killing the Russian mobsters. Later, Conner makes the sign of the Cross over the body of a dead man that he just murdered.
-The brothers, who by all accounts in this movie live in poverty, don’t appear to have any qualms with taking the dirty money lying around in the same room where they killed all the Russian mob bosses. This isn’t played off as a Robin Hood moment, but rather a moment of greed.
-They don’t care that their best friend, Rocco, works for the mafia and are willing to threaten this friend’s life just for their own amusement.
-They have no problem taking the Lord’s name in vain with JCs and OMGs and such.
-They also have no qualms with Rocco not only “dating” a woman addicted to drugs, but then verbally abusing her and threatening her with a gun.
But it’s all okay because they have the silhouette of the Blessed Virgin tattooed on their necks!
My last note involving Catholic Christian theology is based on currency and death. Some of the most iconic imagery in this movie involves the brothers putting pennies over the eyes of the men that they kill. The pennies over the eyes of the dead are seen as having a “religious” connotation. However, I have a question: Where is that idea in Christian theology!? Smecker explains it in terms of Greek or Roman mythology, and maybe the movie is trying to connect Celtic paganism to our Irish Catholic boys, but how are these ideas connected?
Well, that was fun. Now, someone may be saying: Well, even if it’s not really Catholic movie, I still think it’s a good movie…isn’t still a good movie? Let’s consider the following:
Questioning the Movie’s Realism and Quality
-How confusingly meta is this movie? The actor David Della Rocco plays a mafia runner named…David Della Rocco.
-A character with tourettes and a speech impediment? I’m sure he’s here for good character development and not profane comic relief.
-How could anybody just randomly walk into a police precinct unannounced and unchaperoned? And dudes can just randomly walk back in the holding cells without being checked in or stopped or anything?
-How can anybody carry a toilet up onto a roof and climb on top of unstable barrels without falling off the building?
-Signs that it’s a good movie? Ron Jeremy plays a supporting character in the Italian mafia.
-How did they know where to find the shady guy with a bunker full of guns?
-Somehow in a scuffle in the air vents, which isn’t heard by the mobsters below for some reason, the boys conveniently make the rope, which was tied around their bodies, extend and caught on their ankles so that they can dangle upside down in the room. Not only are they upside down, but they are expertly shooting these bad guys with lethal precision. Have these guys used guns before? Have they killed people before? Were they trained by anything other than movies and TV? I don’t know!
-How did Smecker make it into the confessional without being seen by or even seeing the brothers, who we see are praying in the back of church in full view of the confessional?
-Why isn’t Rocco in terrible terrible pain the day after his own finger is shot off?
-Why was the straight, horny mafia guy so aroused by Willem Dafoe, who was clearly a crossdresser?
-When it was revealed that Il Duce was the father of the brothers (oops, sorry…major spoilers, I guess), why wasn’t there some big discussion or argument? As soon as Il Duce joined in their prayer, the boys automatically accepted the man without any hesitation, despite the fact that they tried to kill each other in a previous shootout.
It isn’t until the first time that the brothers go on mission to execute mobsters that one of the main themes of this movie is examined, so we learn this info after the first third of the movie. “Boondock Saints” is supposed to be a commentary on cliches and stylized moments in action movies and TV shows. There’s references to Charles Bronson, Rambo, and what the brothers see on TV. But we never even see a TV in the Saints’ apartment and there’s never a moment beforehand where they watch anything or comment on TV until they get guns in their hands. The visual effects of this movie with the blood and the wounds are both low budget and exaggerated, making it possible that this is all just a commentary on other action movies that are cheap and exaggerated. Dafoe’s character even breaks the fourth wall a bit with his line “Television is responsible for this. You see this in bad television”, which is a little too wink wink nudge nudge for me. This theme gets picked up and dropped so much that it’s hard to tell if this movie is trying to parody terrible action cliches or if it wants to be a role model for terrible action cliches.
|The answer, as demonstrated by this image, is probably both.|
Sometimes it feels like the brothers are almost given superhero type powers just because they’re the protagonists. For example, they are capable of speaking Spanish, French, Gaelic, Italian, English, and Russian. They demonstrate these multi-language skills during their casual interrogation with Smecker. Amazed, Smecker asks “What are you guys doing working at a meat packing plant?” A legit question with a potentially interesting answer…but that gets shrugged off real quick and then interrupted by something silly. I want more backstory, darn it! You can’t pose a decent question exploring character development and then just say “Nevermind! Let’s get to the fun stuff!”.
We also eventually learn that Willem Dafoe’s character is homosexual, which no, that doesn’t immediately make it a bad movie. What makes this character trait a poor choice is that his being homosexual is almost thrown in more for laughs than for good character development. There’s also some quick moments where he’s derogatory and rude towards other homosexual men, almost as if he himself hates being homosexual and tries to be different than them. I admit that I did feel discomfort when seeing two grown men naked in bed and one trying to cuddle on top of the other (there’s an implication that they were sleeping together before we see what takes places on screen).
The Ron Jeremy bad guy patronizes a place called the Sin Bin, because OF COURSE HE DOES! This provides us with a lovely scene where he is inside a dark room, masturbating to porn where you can see the woman’s nipples reflected in his glasses. And the real life stripper of the Sin Bin faints during the Saints’ mission to execute Ron Jeremy, and just so happens to have one of her boobs slip out of the bikini top, so Rocco gets the chance to grope an unconscious woman. Yay!
|It’s okay though. He’s funny and he promises to tip her, so he’s a good guy after all!|
Rocco and the brothers clarify that the brothers kill anyone “they” think is evil, to which Rocco’s natural first reaction is that the whole thing is “a little weird, a little psycho”. The brothers explain that their rationale is, because bad guys are doing bad things without consequences, that people everywhere are thinking that these bad guys deserve to be killed by somebody. They consider themselves that somebody. Somehow, based on that one paragraph, thirty second explanation, they change Rocco’s mind on things. Not only that, but eventually these guys let Rocco, the immoral mafia package boy, be the moral compass who decides which bad guys deserve to die! Why? What’s his moral standard? He willing works for the mafia and even objects to going to Church in the morning for prayer! There’s no established morality to justify these killings and these three guys have no higher moral ground to stand on anyway!
After the climatic courtroom scene, the movies ends in a series of local news interviews with people on the streets. This is actually a pretty decent idea to present thematic dialogue, maybe the movie’s best attempt to question its philosophical ideas. Are these brothers heroes? Are they doing good? Is it right or wrong? Does the media make it better or worse? These kinds of questions are examined from all sides and angles in quick snippets. It doesn’t help the fact that this is the very end of the movie and these questions don’t actually come from our main or supporting cast of characters, but just from random people who might as well be the random stranger sitting next to you in the movie theater.
There’s plenty of other parts that are worth considering and nitpicking, but this article can’t go on forever unfortunately. The point is that “Boondock Saints” does not present the Catholic faith well and, even forgiving the fact that this was made by a first time director, the quality of the final product is not good. This is the kind of movie that is made by a manchild with a very surface level understanding of Christianity and religion because he’s more heavily influenced by secular relativism than faith itself. The R-rating of the movie is mainly due to the unnecessary constant F-bombs and for the over-the-top blood effects from all the gunplay. If I had to give this movie a rating based on my Artistic and Moral Value standards, it would probably be a 1 out of 5 at best.
We need to hold movies to a higher standard overall, but more importantly we need to hold movies about Catholicism to an even higher standard. I’ll be happy if I keep “Boondock Saints” out of my DVD player for a long time to come, and I hope together we can find superior movies about Catholicism and guns and Rosaries and crazy Willem Dafoe acting!
To avoid ending this article with my unhumble opinion, I will leave you with quotes from total strangers. Here are a few quotes, about particular scenes in the movie, from a Youtube video called “Irish People Watch The Boondock Saints for the First Time”.
-“I think they’re just bad saints…cause you wouldn’t just leave a church like that. They just left!” “Saints love Mass”.
-“So much cursing…So much for Catholicism!”
-“So they bless them after they kill them? They wouldn’t have to bless them if they didn’t kill ’em”.