"The price of a conscience is death,” a British police agent named Fergus (played by Ben Kingsley) tells Martin McGartland, an Irish Catholic in Belfast in the late ’80s. Loosely based on McGartland’s autobiography of the same name, the film follows his life from age 22, when he finds himself caught between impossible choices, recruited by both the Irish Republican Army and the British police who want him to spy on the IRA.
In the end, McGartland tries to walk between the two worlds, not accepting the moral code of either, and trying to find his own path in a time and place of life-and-death stakes. (The title refers to the number of people whose deaths were reportedly prevented because of McGartland’s tips to the British.)
From the beginning, it’s easy to empathize with McGartland’s plight, which presents no easy answers, and Jim Sturgess’ strong performance reveals a man under great pressure, trying to lead a normal life with wife and kids while navigating the minefield of Northern Ireland. “You got to expect a bit of killing and a bit of dying in a revolution,” a friend tells McGartland, who isn’t interested in either.
The film doesn’t explore the politics — who’s right and who’s wrong. Instead it’s an action-packed thriller with rock music, shoot-outs, explosives and more than one chase scene. A few caveats, though: The Irish brogue is at times so strong as to be nearly incomprehensible. And while the cinematography is generally serviceable, there are two extended montages that can only be described as corny and amateurish. The squeamish should also be warned that the film includes a heavy helping of violence, including more than one scene of torture.
But it is the tension — doom and violence lurk everywhere — and McGartland’s dilemma — how to survive war and retain your humanity — that make 50 Dead Men Walking a compelling film. While decisions of conscience aren’t always freighted with the specter of death, they are decisions we all face, and we can’t help considering them as we watch McGartland run for his life.