This exhilarating whirlwind of a drama, directed and written by Neil Jordan, begins as a variation on Frank O'Connor's classic short story Guests of the Nation, about IRA terrorists who make the heartbreaking mistake of becoming friendly with the British hostages they are finally ordered to kill. Jordan's version ultimately suggests the surprising question: Is Rea, the terrorist here, perhaps even in love with hostage Whitaker?
Long before we get to that point, though, the movie has changed course at least twice, with startling twists that might not work if Jordan's touch weren't so sure and the atmosphere so lullingly beautiful; the colors are rich and dark, as if deepened by rain. Then, too, there are wildly contrasting performances by shaggy, sad-faced Rea and the electrifying Richardson, who plays his comrade-in-arms as a kind of gorgeous cobra, poised to strike at any moment.
And, of course, there are those plot twists, and the rather pleasurable suspense of wondering whether Jordan's story—which abruptly shifts from Northern Ireland to London, where Rea seeks out Whitaker's girlfriend—is finally going to run away from him. It doesn't, although it comes close to derailing a few limes. (There is a repeated, goofy shot of the hefty Whitaker bowling in cricket gear.) The movie ends with an explosion of violence, but Jordan's spell is so powerful he probably could have brought Bullwinkle B. Moose down from the sky in a golden chariot, and that would have been fine, too. (R)