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Fancy directing takes the place of ideas in this loose-limbed Irish gangster story, but it’s handsome, slick, and enjoyable. Like most pretty things, I Went Down is better off posing and preening than quoting the ancient Greeks, as it does, thank goodness, only once in the quotation that gives the film its title. (Note to hot young filmmakers: If they don’t get the title without an explanation, it’s not worth using.)

Git Hynes (Peter McDonald) ends his eight-month stint in prison only to find that his best girl is making time with his best friend. Worse, she asks him to officially give his blessing to the union; the new couple can’t relax until then. Git’s the kind of guy who’ll quietly agree to this sort of thing, if only because he can’t really believe it’s being asked of him. With his impish looks and laconic manner, Git’s a magnet for other people’s bad behavior. He’s also loyal and fast with his fists, so when the henchmen of the local crime boss rough up his friend for nonpayment of debts, the thugs end up wounded, and the pitiless mobster they work for craves reparations.

Tom French (Tony Doyle) heads up the local organized crime business in this small Irish town, and if he says that Git has to drive down to Cork to pick up ex-associate Frank Grogan and a bag containing £25,000, the boy had better do it. What he doesn’t count on is the company of Bunny Kelly (Brendan Gleeson), a swaggering, lavishly sideburned older hood who owes French a similarly ambiguous debt.

Already this script is so deeply in hock to movie clichés it has little choice but to play out its various hackneyed threads in a stylish manner. The Mismatched Buddies Take a Talky Road Trip to Make a Quick Delivery; later, complicated gangster history will come to light out during a talky Shootout Showdown With a Twist.

A much simplified Pulp Fiction played out across the picturesquely bleak Irish bog country, I Went Down isn’t so much in love with violence as with the mannerist and humorous possibilities of violent situations. Shots are lined up for maximum geometric or comic effect: One wonderful gag involves a gangster lolling in bed in a richly painted room—photographed directly from above—when the door to the room crashes in, making a neat T-shape with the bed. When Bunny treats himself to a dip in a hotel pool, his dive is shot from ground level, chubby calves framing a slender two-umbrella cocktail, which catches a drop of pool water in the splash.

Such careful attention to detail keeps I Went Down from being as hopelessly cute and posturing as the equally stylish but much more vain Shooting Fish. An excess of cleverness intrudes only with the title cards that preface each scene; like the ones television’s Frasier uses, they’re distracting and show-offy, since you haven’t watched the scene yet and therefore can’t relate the words to any action.

But the characterizations are strong and the acting very fine, especially among the leads. (The secondary thugs can tend to the cartoonish.) When Git and Bunny finally abduct French’s ex-associate, Frank Grogan (Peter Caffrey), the impossibility of their job becomes clear—Frank is talkative, charming, and roguish, and has no trouble eliciting the trusting Git’s sympathies. Handcuffed in the back seat, Frank blithely keeps up a stream of patter designed to either bore or disarm his captors, talking of his college degree, his excellent family, his good works. “There’s no gift like giving,” he states grandly. “You can’t beat it.”

The pair alternate between locking Frank in the trunk to get away from his siren song and listening to his much-needed counsel about the alarmingly complicated situation they find themselves in. Git finds Frank’s worldly advice appealing—”You ever make love to a gangster’s wife?” asks Frank. “You can’t really relax”—and Bunny wants to get out from under his debt permanently. They cook up a complicated scheme that would be hard to follow in American English but is near impossible to understand coming from three arguing Irishmen.

But plot per se is secondary; it has been, for some reason, in every gangster film since The Godfather Part II. Up until then, gangster-movie conventions had been strictly drawn; what no one seemed to notice about Coppola’s iconoclasm was that his respect for story with all its genre trappings—allegiance, betrayal, revenge, loyalty—was, if anything, more rigorous and integral than it had been even in the traditional gangster films he was both expanding and taking apart. The modern thug flick takes its cues from Michael Mann’s TV series Crime Story, in which the two words taken together make a more evocative statement than either the crime or the story. I Went Down is a direct descendent of such good-looking poseurs; its guns are old-fashioned and its action modern—mannered, arhythmic, funny, tied to Fate’s whimsical apron strings. CP