The image of the career criminal as an upwardly mobile glamour boy has been so burned into our brains that it was almost inevitable for a film like "The General" to shake us out of our precious delusion. Sometimes romantic but never romanticized, director John Boorman's refreshingly honest character study shows notorious Irish gangleader Martin Cahill waging a street-corner struggle against oppression -- a crusade for a better life whose intermittent success can't eclipse its penny-ante hopelessness.
One look at Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) clues us in that this is no Bugsy. A doughy, balding Dubliner with a wardrobe of ill-fitting warm-up suits, he's unlikely to be christened "the dapper don" in the evening papers. He does have a peculiar charisma, though, enough to command him the respect of a band of neighborhood thugs who loyally follow him from one caper to the next. As played by the infectiously grinning Gleeson, Cahill is just plain likable; given half a chance (and an empty pocket or two), we'd cast our lot with him as well.
Progressing from petty thefts to an audacious art robbery, the lifelong felon gradually becomes the country's most wanted man, but his superior intelligence and skillful community relations enable him to outwit the courts while drawing public opinion to his side. In his own mind, he's a patriot and a populist, robbing from the rich in order to defy a system of church and state that's more brutally corrupt than he is.
If middle-class audiences don't grasp the significance of a scene in which a steadfast Cahill refuses to be removed from a condemned public-housing project, they'll still empathize with the terror he feels upon realizing that his arch nemesis Inspector Ned Kenny (Jon Voight) is ready to meet him in the gutter of his own lawlessness, if that's what it takes for "right" to win the day.
The story's final act traces Cahill's downward turn into paranoia and ill health, as the insurmountability of his situation takes its toll. Although rendered in the same crystal-clear black-and-white that lends the rest of the film the imprimatur of history, the segment suffers from familiarity: Though Gleeson plays it well, it's the same rise-and-fall denouement we've seen in "Goodfellas," "Scarface" and countless other hoodlum biographies.
Besides, we don't really want to see Cahill come undone; we want to remember him as eternally victorious, a cheeky but honest sinner in a land of tainted saints.