I saw Michael Flatley’s new movie ‘Blackbird’ and I had many, many thoughts
After five years of hype, Michael Flatley’s new espionage movie was finally released in Irish cinemas this September… but was it all much ado about nothing? Sarah Finnan gives her verdict.
Ok, let me just pre-empt this by saying that though I was hesitant about going to see Blackbird, Michael Flatley’s directorial debut and his first foray into acting, I was still open to the possibility that it could be good. The trailer wasn’t necessarily bad and after five years of hype – the movie was briefly aired at London’s Raindance film festival in 2018, though no media were permitted to see it at the time – I was intrigued.
“I really feel like it’s going to consume Ireland for an entire year,” a colleague messaged me before the private media screening. “I think we’ll be memeing it for decades. It’ll be the top story on Reeling in the Years.”
Arriving at the Light House cinema in Smithfield, I filed into screen one and took my seat amongst 20 or so other critics and members of the media. At 10:30 in the morning, it hardly seemed right to be settling in for a feature-length action film, but a few minutes later and the words “Dancelord Pictures” were flashing across the screen.
In the movie, Flatley stars as Victor Blackley, or ‘Blackbird’, an ex-MI6 operative once the leader of an undercover special forces unit called The Chieftains. A womanizer with a troubled past, beautiful younger women throw themselves at Blackley (which funnily enough, rhymes with Flatley) throughout the film, whilst others continue to sing his praises, confirming that “only Blackley could solve this”. This being a life-or-death struggle to save, not only those closest to him, but also the lives of millions of people around the world. Blackley has a very particular set of skills you see. Skills he has acquired over a very long career – the details of which are murky at best.
Written, directed by, and starring Michael Flatley, Blackbird is what you would get if you were to cross Downton Abbey with James Bond… or some variation of it anyway. Unsurprisingly, many have accused it of being a vanity project – The Guardian’s review dubbed it “a tale of egosploitation cinema” – and one can certainly see where those comments stem from. Money talks and the quality of the cameramanship is evidence that plenty was thrown at this specific passion project. Flatley maintains that it definitely isn’t a vanity project though, claiming he funded it solely because “it would have just taken too long to raise the money”. “I didn’t know what I’d be doing next year,” he told The Hollywood Reporter.
As expected, Blackbird has all of the usual spy genre tropes – including a high-stakes poker scene, a loyal right-hand man and a tormented protagonist. That said, the movie is sorely lacking, in many departments. The outdated portrayal of women (they’re either beautiful arm candy, spited lovers or helpless dames) is disappointing, to say the least.
The movie itself is funny, though I suspect that wasn’t intentional. Lines such as “forgive me father for I have sinned, and I’m about to sin again” garnered plenty of laughs from the otherwise mute audience, as did another of Blackley’s one-liners when he says “let’s dance” before launching into a violent gun fight. In my opinion, Flatley should have embraced this tongue-in-cheek comedy and leaned into it fully.
Yet more unsettling than the “are these supposed to be funny?” quips are the variety of hats Flatley’s character dons throughout – each one worn at a rakish angle as though placed there mid-dance (how very apt). If Casablanca’s Humphrey Bogart was the inspiration, Blackley falls short.
Admittedly, I expected Blackbird to venture into so-bad-it’s-good territory, but it never quite made it there for me and the next 88 minutes were a bit of a struggle if I’m honest. Consumed with thoughts of weekend plans, I found my mind straying to outfit choices, transport and whether I should pasta or rice for dinner tonight.
Snarkiness aside for a moment though, there was an Irishness to the movie that the cheese-loving romantic in me couldn’t help but indulge; the largely Irish cast, hearing the Our Father said as Gaeilge, the subtle mention of other Irish greats, The Chieftains. Flatley’s particular brand of Irishness may not appeal to everyone, but it is a welcome detour from the usual shaken not stirred UK equivalent all the same.
Michael Flatley’s spy thriller Blackbird was released in Irish cinemas this September.