An internationally celebrated film is strangely hollow at its core

A handful of criminals in every culture see themselves as heroes rather than thieves or murderers, and they work hard at building up their personal myths while breaking the law. Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, and John Gotti are examples of American outlaws whose obsession with image was equaled by their desire to make a big score and their willingness to knock off anyone who got in their way.

Ireland isn't immune to this virus. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, Dublin gangster Martin Cahill captured the public imagination through a series of daring capers and skillful self-promotion. The General is internationally acclaimed British writer-director John Boorman's loose adaptation of Paul Williams’ book about this phenomenon. The movie has received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic without anyone seeming to notice its amoral message.

Shot in a black-and-white, semi-documentary style, it isn't a simplistic glorification of Cahill and his adventures. His cruelty and narcissism are presented along with his much-admired and often humorous defiance of authorities. But the filmmaker has fashioned a dog-eat-dog universe in which no person or group seems to have a moral center. As a result, Cahill, with all his deviant flaws, looks good when compared to his adversaries—the police, the IRA, and the Ulster Defense Force. The gangster's self-centered, anarchistic response to the world is made to seem more natural and honest than the hypocritical conduct of those who are encumbered with any kind of belief system.

In order to make this worldview convincing, The General must show the Church, which is still a moral force in Ireland, in as unflattering a light as possible. So all the priests are depicted as either child molesters or mouthpieces for the propertied classes, and faith is presented as an interior burden which leads to guilt but is helpless against a person's darker impulses.

This vicious anti-Catholicism is only a tiny portion of the film. It almost seems like a throwaway. But without it, Boorman's nuanced, sympathetic portrait of a criminal mastermind wouldn't work, and Cahill would be revealed as an evil, destructive force who drags down most of those around him.

The action begins with the assassination of Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) outside his home in 1994. The movie implies it's the work of the IRA and that the Dublin police looked the other way. The rest of his life is told in flashback. This technique helps create audience sympathy for the gangster as his story unfolds. For, whatever bad deeds he commits, we know he's going to pay for it in the end.

Boorman offers no psychological explanations for Cahill's criminal behavior. His relationship to his parents is barely touched on. Instead the filmmaker buys into a variation of Cahill's mythic re-creation of himself. We see him briefly as a young boy (Eamonn Owens) stealing cigarettes and potatoes for his mother, outrunning the police in the process. It's all presented as a lark. This picture of the youthful Cahill as an unrepentant, smiling thief on the run haunts the gangster at the instant of his death, a moment which Boorman repeatedly cuts back to throughout the movie. The filmmaker wants us to accept this mythic image as the core of the gangster's being.

Apart from his criminal activities, Cahill is depicted as a populist kind of everyman with many likable qualities. His birthplace is Hollyfield, a poor section of Dublin, to which he remains loyal even after he moves to a posh neighborhood. Hardly handsome, he's overweight and suffers from diabetes. He doesn't smoke or drink, loves his three kids, and refuses to profit from drug dealing. When not pulling a job, he lives in middle-class tranquillity with his wife Frances (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and her younger sister Tina (Angeline Bell), carrying on with both of them, which the movie treats with rib-nudging sympathy.

Cahill also tries to cast himself as a Dublin Robin Hood, distributing food to the poor from his illegal gains. The movie wisely doesn't accept this gesture at face value, hinting at the calculations behind his generosity.

The dark side of Cahill's character isn't ignored. Nicknamed “the General” because of his tight control over his gang, he's portrayed as ruthlessly intimidating both traitors within his own ranks and witnesses against him in court. A particularly chilling moment is his crucifixion of a gang member on a billiard table, who later turns out to be innocent of the allegations made against him.

Cahill's nemesis is Dublin police inspector Ned Kenny (Jon Voight), who recognizes the gangster's natural gifts and encourages him to go straight. But Cahill can't resist publicly humiliating the police every chance he gets, and Kenny is driven to break the rules to try and bring him down—actions for which he feels remorse. In a key scene, the gangster mocks the cop for his Catholic conscience and his guilt about his tactics. “You've had to come down to my level,” he gloats, adding he feels no similar qualms about his own misconduct.

The movie neither praises nor condemns Cahill's moral nihilism. Instead Boorman uses the gangster's destructive attitudes as a means of critiquing Irish society, gleefully recording how the General's combativeness lays bare every institution with which he comes into contact.

The IRA is depicted as just another criminal gang, trying to muscle its way into collecting on a percentage of Cahill's capers. When the gangster thumbs his nose at them in the same way he does at everyone else, they try to frame one of his top lieutenants (Adrian Dunbar) on phony drug charges.

One of Cahill's more spectacular jobs is the theft of 18 classic paintings from the Beit collection, including a Vermeer, a Goya, and two Rubens. This heist is justified because the Beit fortune was supposedly derived from the unjustified exploitation of its workers.

The General is, in many ways, an artistic tour de force. But cinematic boldness is ultimately less important than moral intelligence, and the absence of this quality makes the movie's cool irony seem hollow and reduces its exploration of contemporary mythmaking to nothing more than an intellectual exercise.

Arts & Culture correspondent John Prizer currently writes from Paris.

The General is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America.