The name’s Flatley. Michael Flatley. Double O’Seven.
Yes, the Lord of the Dance fancies himself as something of a Celtic action hero, a kind of John Wicklow, if you like. After a premiere of an early assembly cut at a festival back in 2018, his magnum opus – Blackbird – has finally hit cinemas. To be fair, it seems less like it was released, and more like it just escaped into the wild.
The plot itself is mostly bunkum. Retired secret agent Victor Blackley (Flatley) – who was known as ‘Blackbird’ – has long since turned his back on his life as part of a clandestine group known as the Chieftains, and now runs a club on a Caribbean island. Surrounded by former colleagues who work for him, a piece of his past turns up in the form of Vivian (Nicole Evans), who is now engaged to Blake Molyneaux (Eric Roberts), and he is accompanying her as he has to finish off some dealings on the island before their wedding.
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Passing himself off as a businessman and philanthropist, he is actually involved in some shady affairs with international terrorists who are seeking Molyneaux‘s help in getting hold of a secret formula which could have dreadful consequences if it was misused. Despite trying to put the past behind him, Blackley finds himself getting drawn back into revisiting his old ways in order to save both Vivian and the world, meaning the ‘Blackbird’ has to spread his wings once more.
This brief synopsis probably makes Blackbird sound a whole lot more exciting and enticing than it actually is. Imagine a James Bond film where nothing actually happens for about 99% of its duration. You know the old saying about how an infinite number of monkeys being given an infinite number of typewriters would eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare? Blackbird feels like someone tried to make an AI program come up with a Bond screenplay, with the only points of reference being Casablanca and half an episode of Spooks.
Of course, the buck stops firmly with just one man: Michael Flatley. In a feat of creative onanism and self-indulgence on a scale near-unparalleled in recent cinematic history, Flatley not only stars in the film, but also wrote the script, directed, produced, and bankrolled the whole enterprise. In fact, the only thing that he didn’t do here is write da feem toon, sing da feem toon. When Blackley describes Molyneaux as having a narcissistic personality, the very concept of irony implodes so loudly and noticeably, even Alanis Morissette couldn’t fail to detect it.
The old axiom of not making a drama out of a crisis still rings true, especially if it happens to be a mid-life one, which can be the only explanation for Blackbird, even if Flatley is now in his 60s. Robin Williams used to joke about cocaine being God’s way of telling you that you had too much money. Now, it would appear, we have another way: self-financed vanity projects that nobody will love as much as you. Going on the evidence of being the only person who was in the screening attended for the purposes of writing this review, it looks to be a reasonably fair assessment.
Flatley clearly sees himself as being an action star, which is made quite a source of even more piquant hilarity when you realise the inherent lack of action in the film. Besides a very brief flashback scene to establish his tragic backstory, and an equally truncated bar brawl, one of the main set pieces takes place off-screen, behind a stack of boats, with the only real indicator of anything happening being some sound effects, followed by Flatley emerging afterward looking like he came off worst in a battle with a bottle of ketchup.
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In fact, the sexagenarian Flatley is clearly not in the kind of shape that he was in while in the prime of his dancing career. He comes across as less well-suited to portraying a spy than Sean Connery in Never Say Never Again, and perhaps even Connery than he is nowadays. And let us just take a moment to bask in the glow of the truly powerful interaction between laziness and egotism in which he gives his character a name which not only roughly rhymes with his own, but also has the same number of syllables and rhythm. Victor Blackley, Michael Flatley. Yes, as Harry Hill used to say, you’ve got to have a system.
At one point in the film, Blackley declares that “what I do is out of your control”, and it would appear to be out of Flatley’s as well. As a director, he certainly knows how to shoot great visuals of landscapes, making the opening of the movie feel like a marketing video for Visit Ireland, but gets totally out of his depth when required to do anything else besides. Flatley certainly wears many hats in Blackbird, both metaphorically and literally too, with the sheer variety of headgear he dons throughout making him appear as though he must surely be in the pocket of Big Millinery.
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One of the biggest laugh-out-loud moments comes when Blackley changes hats in the middle of a scene, which leaves you with the impression that the range of chapeaux must be there in place of an actual personality. Blackley is so shallow, you would barely be able to dampen your feet if you tried to paddle in him. Not that Flatley rises to the meagre challenge, as acting is clearly not his forte by any reasonable stretch of the imagination. Every single time Flatley tries to emote, he just looks like a man who is desperately trying to pass a pine cone through his urethra.
His surname also provides one half of the perfect homonym to describe how he delivers virtually every line: flatly. Yet he is not alone in the duff thespianism stakes, as Nicole Evans manages to serve up every scrap of dialogue (such as it is) with the sort of real earnestness of a recent drama school graduate, and ably managing to somehow put completely the wrong emphasis on everything she says. Given Vivian is pitched as being the love interest for Blackley, all the sexual chemistry is strictly pH neutral. It seems that sparks don’t fly between the pair, so much as splinters.
Speaking of woodenness, however, special honours must go to Mary Louise Kelly as Madeleine, the young temptress who has designs on Blackley. She has all the performing gusto of somebody who seems to be reading all her lines for the very first time from cue cards. The scene where she strips off to try and seduce Blackley has all the sheer latent eroticism of an autopsy. She really manages to turn in possibly one of the worst turns committed to film this year and, perhaps, even in perpetuity.
Occasionally, and against all hope, acting does sporadically break out on screen, which catches the audience completely off-guard. Lara Lemon, for example, gives her all as Caz, and is far better than the movie deserves. Eric Roberts is clearly having a whale of a time, and manages to have the decency not to look even faintly embarrassed by what he is given to say and do, which must be a near-Herculean feat worthy of special praise in itself. No scenery is left unblemished by his teeth marks, but in absolutely the best way.
For a former dancer, Flatley’s sense of timing just feels to be oddly AWOL throughout, from the pacing of the script, to the delivery in his performance. The whole thing seems to be so leaden, and wholly overcome with a sense of inertia. At least Blackbird has the good grace to be in and out again in quite a slender 90 minutes, although at points it feels much longer. Yet, in a way, it almost leaves you wanting more, as you may not laugh quite so hard at any other picture in 2022, but for what should be a serious, high-octane thrill ride, it may not be quite what they were aiming for.
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Flatley seems to be setting himself up in his mind as the next 007, but we have already had an Irish Bond, and one who was considerably more capable. In fact, one of Pierce Brosnan‘s earlier movies – Taffin – was an entry in the curious genre of Irish action flicks alongside which Blackbird now sits. While not currently overpopulated, some of the other films in this burgeoning category – arch as Moving Target, and the truly bizarre Fatal Deviation – at least lack an overweening sense of trying to be some piece of meaningful high art which you get from Blackbird.
While aiming to be worthy of Bond, it simply ends up being one agent who might have been best off being kept secret. Imitation may be the sincerest form of Flatley, but based on this evidence, it seems Flatley will get you nowhere.
Blackbird is out now in cinemas.