Michael Flatley has finally seen the light and blessed audiences with the release of his self-directed, self-written, self-starred, quasi-remake of Casablanca, Blackbird.
Prior to seeing the film, it was hard to see Flatley’s endeavour as anything other than a vanity project for the one-time Irish American sex symbol and barechested Irish dancing pioneer. It’s hard to think of any other Irish or Irish-American man with as big an ego as Flatley either (well okay, maybe one). This is a man who opens his 2006 autobiography with quotes from Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, and Michael Flatley.
The prospect of Flatley unironically reinventing himself as an action hero (as suggested by the second promotional poster) attracted a lot of ironic attention online, and the lack of an apparent trailer or release date enshrouded the project in mystery. The onset of the pandemic made the release seem even more distant, the prospect of being left with nothing but a one-paragraph description on IMDB and two posters was upsetting to many.
It was at this point that myself and a team of comedy writers and performers The Bootsy Boys decided to produce our own version of the script and record it as a podcast: The Bootsy Boys’ Blackbird, Imitation, we decided, was the sincerest form of Flatley. Writing in his voice proved to be rich comedy terrain, and the show has since been nominated for an Irish Podcast Award for best fiction podcast. Michael Flatley himself won the Best Actor Award with the actual film at the Monaco Streaming Festival, a festival conspicuously low on film screenings in its inaugural year, so we’ll call it a draw.
But what wonders lie within the finished film, and could it possibly live up to the expectations that placed upon it by myself, eight weird comedians and all of Irish Film Twitter over the past 4 years?
The film opens with a shot of the Cliffs of Moher (we never see these again) before we’re introduced to Flatley’s protagonist Victor Blackley (we called his character Mick Blackbird in our podcast, I think our name was the stronger choice) as he paws at a birdcage with a blackbird inside, thinking of his recently deceased wife. His dead wife was not a bird, but a human woman who was brutally murdered in a spying mission gone wrong. We then see Victor at the burial, laying her (the wife, not the bird) to rest, not in a cemetery but on the grounds of Michael Flatley’s estate – perhaps for tax reasons.
Painfully hammy dialogue at the funeral afters’ informs us that Victor is “the best at what he does” – though they stop short of calling him the “Michael Flatley of spying”, or “Lord of the reconnaissance”. We also learn that he belonged to a group of spies known as “the Chieftains”. Is this a passing reference to the band that gave Flatley his start? Or perhaps an attempt to build a Chieftains cinematic universe of disappointing spy films.
Victor broods in the rain before walking away from the burial and Michael Flatley’s massive house and we jump forward in time ten years. Here we find him owning a beautiful but overlit (there’s an energy crisis, Michael) hotel in the Caribbean. We see that he’s living a glamorous version of the male Irish Emigrant dream- opening a bar and hiring a mixture of beautiful young models and weathered Irish expats. People continue to talk about him being “the best at what he does”, and compliment him on how handsome he looks, which presumably happens in Flatley’s real life all the time. We made jokes about this happening in The Bootsy Boys podcast, but we are beyond parody now.
It’s then that our villain Blake (Eric Roberts, a hoot throughout) arrives with fiancée Vivian (Nicole Evans) – a former colleague of Victor’s, to stay at Victor’s hotel. Vivian is apparently too naive to realise she’s engaged to a sneaky war criminal, who has a habit of checking his email and then giving her a big wad of cash to leave the room. Perhaps this is what a normal functioning relationship looks like when you’re rich.
Coming face to face with his past is all a bit much for Victor. We know this because when a beautiful singer, (played by Mary Louise Kelly, an actress 35 years younger than Flatley), disrobes gratuitously before him, he resists. His pain and anguish is palpable. To be honest, it’s the type of scene I’d put in a self-made film if I won the lotto, got divorced and had a breakdown in the same day. Never make fun of someone until you’ve danced a mile in their shoes.
All of this lethargic sexual energy eventually finds a plot to wrap itself around. We learn that our villain has intercepted a formula from the world’s top scientists who have invented a one-size-fits-all antidote to cure most (or even all?) of the world’s illnesses. But Blake has reversed the formula, and plans to sell it to African warlords (it turns out there’s a secret society of warlords, I can’t remember what they’re called but it’s not Planxty) and they’re going to use it to wipe out hundreds of millions of people. This premise is only slightly less ridiculous than ours, which involves the return of the nazis under the leadership of cyber hitler.
The speed with which the premise is glossed over is staggering, as is Victor’s reluctance to help out, or even alert someone who might be able to help. It appears his spy friends in London aren’t much use either, they just passed on a dossier and hoped he’d deal with the catastrophic formula for them. But sadly there’s no time. There’s an ocean to be stared out over, whiskey to be drunk, and various hats to be worn. It’s hard, amidst all of the outfits, to know what’s a costume change and what’s a continuity error.
I know it sounds like we’re still in the first act, but this is really all that happens for the vast majority of the film. The action, when it does come, mostly consists of a shootout which cuts away to shots of the ocean as soon as guns start firing. It’s nothing short of criminal that after almost 90 minutes of being told that “no one can do what Victor does”, we’re denied the opportunity to see it.
There’s plenty to joke about in Blackbird, between the painfully clichéd dialogue, the awkward delivery, the endless exposition, the cúpla focail as gaeilge, and the sad desperation of the whole project. The real disappointment, however, is that it lacks the courage to really offer up the entertainment it promised. It could have been a much more fun ride if Flatley was capable of even a little self-awareness, but there’s none of that on display, and nothing intentionally fun about the whole film. There’s no knowing winks, no tap dancing, no explosions, no motorbikes, no musical sequences, no shootouts, no Nazis, no warrior monks, and no orgies. For these and more, you’ll have to listen to The Bootsy Boys’ Blackbird.
Blackbird is currently playing in Irish cinemas