The main attraction of this story is not of the violent politicking between the British and the IRA, where you see how either side become both the oppressed and the oppressor with their imposition of rules and regulations executed sometimes on a whim. This film doesn't seek out to preach the truth and has from the start stated that it had taken plenty of liberties with the story, inspired by the true story of an undercover agent's role in the IRA, being a trusted source and informant to the British, until he was played out as a political pawn and had to forever be on the run. Welcome to the world of clandestine operations, where the only rule of the game is to survive.
It takes a lot to go undercover and work as a mole. This duality is already very keenly spelled out in films such as Infernal Affairs (OK, so this is a very referenced film, but one to me that had raised the bar up so high), where one can be seduced by sheer power, or corruption of morality that one's supposed to be guarded against. It's no fun having to play act all the time, constantly looking over your shoulder at every turn, and practically living in fear that you'll be discovered due to carelessness, and be dished out punishment with unimaginable pain as just desserts.
Fifty Dead Men Walking refers to the number of persons that were saved from one man's diligent work as an undercover, without whom they would be sitting ducks to assassination attempts. In being timely to surface credible information to thwart would-be incidents, you're always be put in a position where your identity will be compromised, since the number of “moles”eliminated with each unsuccessful operation, will narrow the shortlist down to a few suspects. For Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess), a wayward youth in Belfast who doesn't take sides, he becomes the perfect cover for British Intelligence officer Fergus (Ben Kingsley), who has to convince the former of his value to the cause, the British and not the Irish one that is.
So it's not just the usual Spy versus Spy where the source Martin becomes a hero overnight, but the film traces the long and arduous road of his rise into the inner echelons, while feeding off from the support of his handler Fergus to occasionally bail him out of tight situations. It's very much based on the themes of trust and betrayal. For Martin, with every step of trust that he gains from the IRA head honchos, it's also a proportional step of betrayal that's at his disposal, with each disclosure of operational plans and targets to Fergus. And trust is not easy between him and Fergus as well, and both of them knows it very clearly that either has the power within them, at any time, to call off this understanding of truce between both men, and betray the other.
It's a film that dwells on these themes successfully, and both Sturgess and Kingsley bring their characters quite alive by their electrifying portrayals of men trying to do the right thing, to make their worlds a better place to live in and save the lives of innocents on both sides. Besides being just plain handler and source, their professional relationship grows from the testing phase where negotiated chips sometimes don't get fulfilled, to a father-son one as they realize that they only have each other to depend on, as the big picture politics start to get in the way and threaten their solid partnership. Both actors feed off this great chemistry between them to bring out common elation with each successful stint, and fear when things start to go awry.
And with success breeds contempt, which puts the last 20 minutes of the film into a gripping but eventually emotional finale, that roads paved with good intentions more often than not, lead to Hell, or in McGartland's case, an everlasting personal torture. As with all clandestine operations, a pawn who grows too successful will garner unwanted attention from those who are morally corrupt, and basically there's no such thing as a thank you note of gratitude, only instances of how useful one can be constantly. When you outlive your usefulness, expect to be tossed out like the rest of the thrash.
What sagged the film was the attempt to provide more dimension to Martin McGartland through his romantic life, in the form of live-in girlfriend Lara (Natalie Press) and a Mata Hari-type temptress and boss Grace (Rose McGowan), both of which became somewhat of a distraction to the flow of the narrative, especially the needless un-seductive moves of the latter. Otherwise, Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess' performances should draw you into the film, as would the themes and premise of the film.