Bursting with unruly energy that practically escapes the confines of the screen, “Kneecap” is a riotous, drug-laced triumph in the name of freedom that bridges political substance and crowd-pleasing entertainment. The three members of the eponymous Irish rap group — Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh, Naoise Ó Cairealláin, and JJ Ó Dochartaigh — play themselves in this liberally fictionalized reimagining of their origin story set in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Cornerstone to the trio’s artistic ethos is the use of the Irish language (sometimes referred to as Irish Gaelic), to which writer-director Rich Peppiatt (a Brit) remains faithful. The island’s ancient native tongue — once banned by the British and only recognized as an official language in the U.K. in 2022 — is intrinsically tied to the identity of the colonized Irish people, often seen as an emblem of their enduring culture and defiance against British imperialism.
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Oscar-nominated “The Quiet Girl,” a quaint drama in Irish, emerged from Ireland’s state-funded efforts to use cinema as a vehicle to promote and preserve the language spoken by 80,000 people. With an anarchic tone that’s sure to ruffle some feathers, “Kneecap” joins a growing list of titles slowly building a filmic archive of stories in the Irish language.
When not throwing darts at a picture of Margaret Thatcher, childhood best friends Liam (alias Mo Chara) and Naoise (stage name Móglaí Bap) make a living selling an assortment of narcotics bought on the deep web. The son of a presumably deceased, high-ranking Irish Republican Army (IRA) militant for whom speaking Irish was nearly as significant in symbolic impact as blowing up cars was during the Troubles, Naoise has revolution and resentment pumping through his veins. No less of an Irish patriot, Liam feels conflicted about his sexual, and eventually romantic entanglement with a protestant girl.
Charismatic in a rough-around-the-edges manner, the duo does more than get obscenely high; they rap. Their polemical verses, mostly in Irish with some English-language lines sprinkled in, brim with the juvenile hedonism of sexual conquests and profusive drug use, while also spouting rebelliousness against authority. Peppiatt enlists Liam to narrate his wonderfully offbeat docudrama with feisty irreverence, similar to “Trainspotting” in more ways than one, and treats reality as malleable via fantastical sequences illustrating the boys’ endless drug trips.
In trouble with the law one night, Liam meets a mild-tempered Irish language teacher named JJ who shares their values and takes it upon himself to put music to their tracks, becoming Kneecap’s third member. On stage, JJ transforms into wild DJ Provaí, sporting a balaclava bearing the colors of the Irish flag to protect his identity, yet boldly showing his naked derriere adorned with the legend “Brits Out.”
High voltage from front to back, “Kneecap” features fittingly frenzied animated flourishes, including an MTV-ready claymation vignette, as it tracks the artist’ graduation from empty local bars to sold-out venues with surrealist effervescence. As far as antagonists go, the rollicking youths find themselves stuck between a cop (Josie Walker) bent on proving Naoise’s dad didn’t die and violent encounters with the R-RAD (Radical Republicans Against Drugs), a paramilitary faction on the same political side but not fond of illicit substances.
Not all visual components in Peppiatt’s eclectic bag of tricks imbue originality (VHS-style fast-forwards are overused), but there’s enough gutsy charm packed into the charged performances of the rappers turned convincing actors and Ryan Kernaghan’s vivaciously shapeshifting cinematography, even as the film ramps up to an expectedly uplifting finale, to earn it some slack.
When compared to Kenneth Branagh’s fangless and saccharine “Belfast,” which unfolds in the 1960s at the height of Northern Ireland’s religious conflict, Peppiatt’s comedy wrapped in ideological barbed wire feels all the more subversive (a shot of a Palestinian flag hanging from a balcony in an apartment complex confirms where the Irish allegiance lies). Those well versed in Irish history might clock digs at Irish hero Michael Collins or a brief hallucination gag involving the face of politician Gerry Adams. But lack of such knowledge won’t hinder enjoyment of the overall galvanizing fun that permeates.
With limited screen time but great narrative significance, Michael Fassbender plays Naoise’s father Arlo — don’t miss a reference to the IRA leader the actor portrayed in Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” — who knows that Kneecap’s controversial ascent to fame and the large number of acolytes they’ve amassed represents a possibility for the resurgence of spoken Irish as a source of pride. Because to keep a language alive it must be part of the culture now, and not only a remnant of bygone eras. Their music has the power to inspire those their age to learn it, to pass it on.
As amusing as it is thought-provoking, “Kneecap” concerns the passing of the baton in an ongoing battle for the salvation of the Irish language, and of Irish sovereignty in turn. The trio’s catchy rap tunes move the fight from the days of extremism to the realm of influential pop culture soft power that can penetrate society without the casualties of the past. If as the adage suggests every word in Irish is in fact a bullet to the heart of the oppressor, then the Kneecap lads are spitting an explosive verbal barrage.
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