Many of the films about the Irish Republican Army -- including Bloody Sunday, In the Name of the Father, and Michael Collins -- present the group in a sympathetic light, but Fifty Dead Men Walking is far less kind in its approach. Kari Skogland's thriller begins in the late '90s, with ex-IRA informant Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess, 21) being shot repeatedly while hiding out in Canada. The movie rewinds to the 1980s, and the IRA's tactics are soon revealed as the reason for Martin's switch to informant. The film shows the terrorists' torture of their enemies in unflinching detail; at times, this is a gritty, violent movie that isn't for the faint of heart -- or the weak of stomach.
Fifty Dead Men Walking is inspired by McGartland and Nicholas Davies' account of McGartland's experiences as an informant, or "tout." In the film, Martin is a minor con man working in Belfast, trying to make money illegally since his religious status excludes him from employment. The Northern Irish city is divided in two, with a less-than-easy truce between the Protestants and Catholics, and the police seem to incite as many fights as they stop. Martin and his friend Sean (Kevin Zegers, Transamerica) enter the ranks of the IRA, and at first, it adds purpose to the aimless lives of the two young men. However, after Martin witnesses an IRA attack on his girlfriend's brother, he is persuaded to work for the British police. His handler, Fergus (Ben Kingsley), coaches Martin through his betrayals, but Martin's ascent through the IRA ranks brings him closer to discovery with every move.
Fifty Dead Men Walking rides on Sturgess' layered, thoughtful performance. The supporting cast -- Kingsley in a by-the-numbers turn, Zegers' attempt to move beyond his pretty-boy typecasting, and Rose McGowan as the IRA's version of Mata Hari -- are all fine, if forgettable, but Sturgess delivers a memorable performance. His major career choices to date -- Across the Universe, Crossing Over, and 21 -- have had him improving mediocre material, and Fifty Dead Men Walking adds to that trend.
Writer-director Kari Skogland has been making movies for almost two decades, and Fifty Dead Men is perhaps her biggest film to date. Episodes of TV shows such as Queer as Folk and The L Word appear on her filmography next to the female-driven drama The Stone Angel and the Wesley Snipes thriller Liberty Stands Still. The Canadian filmmaker doesn't seem to be pigeonholed in a particular style, but Fifty Dead Men Walking further establishes her credentials in the thriller genre. The action sequences are strong, especially an early chase scene that follows Martin and Sean as they tumble through the city of Belfast. This is a passable film, but it tends to fade from memory almost as soon as the credits roll. Martin's story is intriguing, especially thanks to Sturgess, but ultimately there is little that sets the film apart from dozens of other crime thrillers.