Growing up in Belfast, Frankie McGuire's first exposure to violence came early and hit hard. He was just a child sitting around the dinner table with his family when a masked assassin broke into the house and gunned down his father.
Now, as an adult, Frankie (Brad Pitt) is a hunted member of the IRA, a top-ranked assassin in his own right. And his unit is being violently phased out by British police. As a result, Frankie wants leave something behind and go out in a blaze of glory.
He travels to New York City under the false name of Rory Devaney and strikes a deal with mobster Billy Burke (Treat Williams) for some missiles. While he's negotiating, however, he needs a safe haven, and a New York judge with IRA sympathies arranges for him to stay with a family in New Jersey.
The head of that family is Tom O'Meara (Harrison Ford), a stoic, straight-arrow, honest cop who puts his family first. His loving wife (Margaret Colin) and two daughters are everything to him, but when he welcomes Rory into his home he sees an opportunity to bond with another male.
Unfortunately, his association with Rory throws Tom into the thick of the conflict. His first thought is to simply bring Rory in, but when he realizes British police want Rory dead, he vows to bring him back alive.
All of this has the makings of a powerhouse contemporary thriller, combining Irish unrest with American apathy, and the film does have a few moments here and there that hold promise.
But beyond the acting fireworks provided by the film's stars, "The Devil's Own" is routine and empty, directed at a snail's pace by Alan J. Pakula, whose career is filled with top-of-the-line hits ("All the President's Men," "Sophie's Choice," "Klute," "Presumed Innocent"), but also a number of misfires ("Rollover," "Consenting Adults," "Dream Lover").
This is made all the more frustrating because Ford and Pitt are obviously up to the task. Pitt is excellent as a hardened young man who kills routinely and all too well, but whose heart yearns for something more. And Ford brings emotional weight to his seen-it-all cop, a good-hearted man who is ethically and emotionally challenged by circumstances he can't control.
And if the screenplay, by three writers Kevin Jarre ("Glory," "Tombstone"), David Aaron Cohen ("V.I. Warshawski") and Vincent Patrick ("Family Business") had been better, they could certainly deliver the goods.
But nearly all of the other characters are underdeveloped, and the plotting is by the numbers.
Pakula is at his best here with scenes that detail the day-to-day work of New York street cops. Those scenes, with Ford and Ruben Blades, have a frightening bluntness to them.
The rest of the film, however, seems like filler.
"The Devil's Own" is rated R for considerable violence and some harsh profanity.