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Sometimes, you can have the very best intentions and still fall short. You may set out to help someone, for all the right reasons, only to have everything backfire completely. You might attempt to atone for a past transgression, only to re-stoke flames of hatred that might, otherwise, have been forever snuffed. You might even attempt to make a film that deals in highly personal issues of redemption, forgiveness and hatred while simultaneously showcasing pulse-pounding action. Five Minutes of Heaven strives for many things but, unfortunately, falls just as short on many of them.

Five Minutes of Heaven is a fictional film that’s actually inspired by real events, although the bulk of the film still dwells in the land of supposition and “what-if.” The movie begins in 1975 with young Alistair Little, a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force, in Northern Ireland. The UVF were a staunchly anti-Catholic, anti-Irish Republic group that patrolled Northern Ireland during the worst part of the age-old British/Irish conflict. In retaliation for a perceived threat by Catholic workers against a Protestant worker, Little finds and kills a Catholic man, Jimmy Griffin, in front of his younger brother, Joe. Alistair ends up serving time in prison, where he seems to have come out a changed, repentant man. Joe survived a childhood where he was unfairly blamed by his mother for his older brother’s death and made to suffer every day under her emotional and physical abuse. His only dream has been the “five minutes of Heaven” that he would experience as he killed Alistair Little. Thirty-odd years later, Joe just may get his chance as a TV crew facilitates a meeting between Alistair and Joe, under the guise of promoting a reconciliation between the two men. Alistair is cautious yet seems to genuinely desire a chance to begin the healing process. Joe, for his part, just can’t keep his hands off that sharp knife in his pocket. Which notion will prevail: forgiveness or vengeance?

As stated earlier, Five Minutes of Heaven has noble, if rather scattered intentions. There is some genuinely good work being done here, especially by Liam Neeson as modern-day Alistair. Neeson brings much of the quiet reserve that he’s noted for to the role, somehow making a former terrorist into something of a penitent monk. It’s not the easiest transition to swallow but Neeson really sells it. There’s a notable difference between the brash and arrogant young Alistair (played quite capably by Borgia’s Mark Ryder in a part that amounts to little more than a cameo: he’s so good that I wish we’d spent more time in the past) and the quietly religious older Alistair.

James Nesbitt, as modern-day Joe, is good but he has the tendency to play everything too aggressively, too unhinged. It reminds one of the criticisms lobbed at Jack Nicholson for his portrayal of Jack Torrance in The Shining: he started off unhinged, so the slippery slope to madness isn’t very steep. Similarly, Nesbitt plays Joe as such a damaged, fractured, spastic creature that it’s difficult to get a sense of anything from him except for pain. Every line is delivered with either clenched-teeth, ready-to-explode anger or an actual outburst, a few of which are powerful enough but lose impact through repetition. There’s something of a Nicholas Cage quality to Nesbitt’s performance, which doesn’t necessarily work to the film’s benefit. We’re allowed to see Alistair cycle through several emotions: sorrow, anger, regret, hesitation, confusion, serenity. For Joe, however, we only get pain, anger, regret and fear. This can, of course, be chalked-up to Joe’s miserable childhood and single-minded desire to kill Alistair: all well and good. Nesbitt’s constant red-lining of the emotions, however, leaves no room whatsoever for emotional building or resonance: it’s either flat or outraged.

Structurally, the film makes a few odd choices that tend to detract from the overall package, particularly involving confusing voice-overs (at one point, I thought Joe was actually talking, only to realize it was the voice-over, which promptly segued back into actual dialogue: needlessly confusing. The strangest aspect of the film, however, is the abrupt transition from emotional drama to action film in the film’s climax. It’s a scenario that the film seems to have been building up to for some time but, when it comes, the moment feels entirely out-of-place and strange, like a scene lifted from another film (possibly one of Neeson’s Taken films) entirely. That the film manages to end in a manner more consistent with the dramatic angle than the action one only further compounds the situation and makes the climatic fisticuffs that much odder and, to be frank, sillier.

Five Minutes of Heaven is a decent film with performances that range from the very good (Neeson and Ryder) to the very presentational (Nesbitt and Jill Crawford as a rather bizarre makeup assistant who functions as a sounding board for Joe’s rants as they await the arrival of Alistair). I can certainly appreciate the sentiment but can’t help feeling that a much more interesting film, a film that I really wanted to see, was left back in 1975 with all of those misguided young men patrolling the night and shooting each other for reasons even they can’t figure out. That sounds like a pretty great film, to be honest: as it stands, Five Minutes of Heaven is just a decent one.