Credit: Mark Mainz
by Chris Mello Featured Film Genre Views

Dead Shot — Charles Guard & Thomas Guard

August 16, 2023

Dead Shot opens in south Armagh, what the British soldiers call “Bandit Country,” in 1973 on a border ambush gone wrong. In pursuit of IRA man Michael O’Hara (Colin Morgan), British soldiers murder his pregnant wife, who is in labor, and lose a few of their own in the ensuing shooting. Immediately we are set up for a revenge plot in which Michael, a man on his way out of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, will allow himself to be pulled back in, just to get close enough to kill his wife’s murderer. But when perspective shifts to that British soldier, Tempest (Aml Ameen), as he’s pulled into clandestine work by his superiors, it starts to become clear that Thomas and Charles Guard’s film is not the movie its pulpy title and slick, familiar action movie poster is selling. Though it initially has the makings of a typical revenge movie and sports plenty of violence, it’s a slower, more thoughtful historical thriller than its marketing implies, one that is more interested in emotional gravity and political apparatus than in spinning bloodshed into entertainment.

Both Michael and Tempest are sent to London by their bosses. Michael is to be a part of an IRA cell in London, taking on a series of missions, given to him by a courier (Felicity Jones), that he’s promised will bring him closer to his own target. Meanwhile, Tempest is made part of a police task force engaged in a secret war with these IRA cells, taking targets by surprise and doing battle in apartment buildings. Their paths converge steadily, the atmospheric tension of the first half eventually giving way to a series of shootouts, including a finale that seems constructed to recall that of Heat on a much smaller budget.

What seems to interest the Guards’ more than espionage machinations and machine gun fire is the similarity between its chosen combatants on either side of the Troubles conflict. While Tempest is a British soldier, complicit in an oppressive regime in Northern Ireland and responsible for the murder of a pregnant woman, he is also a Black man, fighting for a country that has shown him little love. He is merely a tool to his employers, who seize on his vulnerability to force his uneasy alliance with the police — a working situation that clearly disgusts his girlfriend much more than his military service. Michael has been with the IRA since he was 15, and if his status as a cog in the machine wasn’t clear from the work he has to do to get to his personal goal, then an early conversation between his boss, Keenan (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor), and his mother, who believes him dead, will do the job. Over the course of the film, Michael’s relationship with Keenan and the IRA frays further, until Keenan emerges as the most sinister figure in the movie.

While this skepticism of national structures, official and otherwise, makes for a compelling mirroring of the film’s dual protagonists and a strong narrative framework, it can also threaten to flatten the political dimensions of a real conflict that are still felt today into rather pat bothsidesism. With the ideological specifics of the conflict taken for granted, left entirely unmentioned even by Keenan, the narrative twists that make Michael’s position more fraught ironically serve to simplify the bigger picture and decontextualize the film’s violence, making historically blurred lines between good and bad much easier to draw.

That isn’t all that is holding Dead Shot back, though. It’s a movie long on period piece detail but short on style, one that does little to hide its Sky Original origins and which bears the markings of a stiff, British TV production, even as it does, usually, look fairly good. But while nothing on display is exceptional in any regard, that doesn’t really matter. This is the type of sturdy genre filmmaking that has largely moved into the realm of 10-episode television serial that outstays its welcome, only here packed back into its old, reliable 90-minute container.

DIRECTOR: Charles Guard & Thomas Guard;  CAST: Aml Ameen, Mark Strong, Felicity Jones, Colin Morgan;  DISTRIBUTOR: Quiver Distribution;  IN THEATERS & STREAMING: August 18;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 32 min.