"Kings" is adapted from a play about Irish expatriates in London mourning one of their own, and if you're expecting whiskey, rage, and the past that never stops eatin' at a man, you'll get a full glass - and a full ear - of all three. At their best, the filmmakers rearrange the auld stereotypes in new ways, but they're still stereotypes at the end of the day.
And it's a long day. It begins with down-at-their-heels roommates Jap (Donal O'Kelly) and Git (Brendan Conroy) preparing to grieve for their pal by scrounging a drink. The dead man, Jackie, played in ghostly fashion by Seán Ó Tarpaigh, fell in front of a moving underground train either accidentally or on purpose, and now his five friends are convening, guilt-ridden over the ways they could have helped Jackie and didn't.
We occasionally see them as strapping young Connemara men in grainy 16mm flashbacks, celebrating the boat race that remains the high point of their lives. Everything since then has been exile and disappointment. Jap has hardened into the blowhard of the group, deep in denial of his own sins, while Git is the sodden optimist, always drunk, always hoping for the best.
There's Shay (Donncha Crowley), who runs a grocery and is happy with his blue-collar lot; Máirtin (Barry Barnes), whose wife is nagging him to quit the bottle; and Joe, the most successful of the group and played by the film's biggest name, character actor Colm Meaney ("Con Air," "Layer Cake"). Even Joe is racked with uncertainty, snorting cocaine that Git grimly calls "the rich man's drink."
One of the more striking aspects of "Kings" is that its characters speak primarily in Irish Gaelic - the film is subtitled in English - and Jap especially uses the language as a defiant reminder of who he is and who his friends should be. Joe, the first to leave Connemara in their youth, has no time for such nonsense, and the film shares his opinion that nostalgia is delusion even as it revels in the hard consonants and fluid vowels of the ancient tongue.
It's the language of home, but where exactly is home? The London where they live? The Ireland of their memories? Ireland as it exists in 2007? The five friends stake out different points on the graph, with much talk of returning to Connemara and a general aversion to doing just that. Perhaps the only way back to the homeland they carry in their heads and hearts is Jackie's way: In a pine box.
Director Tom Collins (no relation to Rob Roy, I'm guessing) opens the play up slightly - there are exteriors and the above-mentioned flashbacks - but this is still more stage than cinema, with drama embedded in whiskey-talk rather than action and setting. At a brief 85 minutes, "Kings" doesn't give us enough of these men for their stories to be more than archetypal; only Git, brought to blinking, pathetic life by Conroy in the film's finest performance, seems bigger than his immediate circumstances.
Underlying all the insults and embraces, the wavering backroom renditions of "Danny Boy" (no, really), is a sustaining booze mythology of failure that playwright Jimmy Murphy presents as the curse of the Irish, and which "Kings" tries to simultaneously puncture and celebrate. That's a paradox, of course, and ultimately the source of a sincere film's own failings.