Whole Lotta Sole

Oscar-winning Belfast director Terry George returns with a fish-based, Tarantinoesque comedy crime caper

It’s indicative of Belfast’s never-healthier cultural landscape – MTV here, HBO there, Titanic this, Olympic Torch that – that the world premiere of Belfast-born Oscar-winner Terry George’s new film at the Waterfront Hall doesn’t feel like the massive media event it perhaps once might have been.

Gone are the days when even a fleeting glimpse of, say, Jimmy Nesbitt necking a pint in the Crown Bar would have had every hack in the city swarming like flies to… Well, you get the idea.

Still, that’s not to say that tonight’s glitzed-up gala screening is without its pomp or circumstance. The presence of Whole Lotta Sole’s American star, Brendan Fraser (The Mummy), adds some old-school Hollywood glamour to proceedings, and most of the rest of the cast and crew seem to be here, too.

Indeed, as writer and director George reads out the roll call of talent present, Fraser jokes, 'Would anyone else who was in this film please come to the podium?'

Also in the house are Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness and Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín, who take to the stage before the screening to underline their commitment to the Northern Irish film industry and to crack a few quips.

Sadly, they have their thunder stolen by a little boy in the audience, who gets the first big laugh of the evening when, as the lights go down and the movie takes its time to screen, he says loudly, 'Uh-oh!'

It’s a nice ice-breaker, and fits perfectly with the tone of George’s flick. Whole Lotta Sole is a farcical crime comedy, very much in the tradition of other Irish-themed yarns such as In Bruges, Perrier’s Bounty and The Guard.

The two main differences are that Brendan Gleeson isn’t in this (we get the similarly scenery-chewing Colm Meaney and David O’Hara instead) and Whole Lotta Sole is set – and was shot – north of the border. (Incidentally, George makes excellent use of the Belfast and Downpatrick locations, even if it takes some getting used to seeing the latter’s Scotch Street lead onto the Ormeau Road.)

And speaking of O’Hara (the Scottish character actor arguably best known for playing Jack Nicholson’s right-hand maniac in The Departed), somehow this reviewer has ended up sitting slap-bang in the middle of his and his Whole Lotta Sole co-star Martin McCann’s family parties, with McCann himself in the seat directly in front, and O’Hara right behind.

It’s weird watching a film while two of its principal actors are mere feet away, talking and laughing loudly throughout. Usually, it would be the done thing to tell noise-makers to shut up, but on this occasion I let it slide...

Besides, they’re hardly the only ones raising a ruckus. The audience are in hysterics, thanks to George and co-writer Thomas Gallagher’s wilfully outrageous script. It’s a freewheeling plot, centred around the genre’s usual hare-brained rob-a-fish-market-to-pay-off-gambling-debts-before-a-psychopathic-gangster-blowtorches-your-feet-and-steals-your-baby-son scheme.

Throw in a burgeoning romance between Fraser’s US expat antiques dealer Joe Maguire and Yaya DaCosta’s Ethiopian refugee Sophie, a pair of bickering father-and-son policemen, a family of travellers scheming to rob Joe’s shop and a mysterious bag that the 'heroes' have and the bad guy wants back, and you have the ingredients of a Tarantinoesque affair that would fit in somewhere between Pulp Fiction and Catch .44.

In the lead role, Fraser doesn’t disgrace himself and neither does McCann as the small-time, hustling hood Jimbo Reagan. Most of the best lines go to Meaney and O’Hara, though, who portray, respectively, a homophobic, borderline sectarian PSNI chief (Whole Lotta Sole is not preoccupied with dispelling negative stereotypes) and the familiarly monikered, seemingly outside-the-law, ex-paramilitary thug ‘Mad Dog’ Flynn, who operates out of a base in the now-defunct InShops on Belfast’s High Street.

Inevitably, not everything in the film works. Often, there’s just too much going on, and one story development concerning Fraser and McCann’s characters’ relationship just feels wrong. Without giving too much away, it’s neither interesting nor necessary.

George also misses a major trick by not bringing in the Bostonian mobster who’s after Joe to cause havoc on the streets of Belfast. John Travolta or Ray Liotta would have been perfect in such a part, though probably outside the producers’ price range.

Though it may not be in the same league as the filmmaker’s previous efforts Hotel Rwanda or Reservation Road (though it has more in common with his Oscar-winning short film, The Shore), Whole Lotta Sole succeeds in what it sets out to do, and that is deliver a whole lot of laughs.