“Kneecap” is the delightfully spiky story of an Irish-language hip hop act’s unlikely rise to fame. But it would be a lot better if it knew what to do with Michael Fassbender.

Despite its best efforts not to be, “Kneecap” is a film about conflict. The opening narration tells us that every film about Belfast is the same — cue grainy archive footage of cars exploding. This one, rapper and protagonist Naoise Ó Cairealláin says, will be different. In a “You Might Be Wondering How I Got Here”-style voiceover, he describes his baptism in a remote forest used by Catholics to practice their religion after it was banned in the Tudor conquest of Ireland. But his family happened upon an IRA training spot, and the light that symbolised Naoise’s entry to the family of God was actually a British chopper. As the priest, the baby, and his mother Dolores (Simone Kirby) cower for safety, Móglaí’s dad Arlo (Michael Fassbender) stands tall in the spotlight, middle finger raised at the faceless, foreign enemy.

Like father, like son. “Kneecap” is the fictionalized origin story of the real-life rap group (all playing themselves) and their unlikely role in a campaign to save the Irish language in a place where only a few thousand speak it. Whether you call it the North of Ireland or Northern Ireland depends on a few things, but the band knows where they stand. Naming their band after the common form of punishment handed out by violent neighborhood watch-types to those caught dealing drugs, Naoise raps as Móglaí Bap, his best friend Liam Óg Ó Hannaidh is Mo Chara, and — best of all — local music teacher JJ Ó Dochartaigh is the balaclava-clad DJ Próvaí. The balaclava is a professional necessity, and at first he DJs from an off-stage cupboard in case any of his students show up. 

Móglaí and Mo Chara part of the so-called “ceasefire baby” generation, born after the Troubles ended with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The war is over and any notions of glory or martyrdom are just that. But they carry plenty of what’s been termed post-colonial stress disorder, which they’re happy to exploit to secure extra ODD and ADHD meds.

As much as radical republicanism, drugs and disaffection are what first bring the gang together. Their breakthrough song, “C.E.A.R.T.A” (“rights”), has lyrics both about unionist cops and “getting down on the powder again”. Kneecap’s first stipulation in agreeing to the film was that the dialogue be in Irish. Debutant director Rich Peppiatt, who made music videos with the group, took up lessons shortly before they started shooting. When they first rap, it’s a Eureka moment for the expression of their identities – and the compatibility of the Irish language and hip-hop. It’s easy to see why they became a media sensation, which culminated in a New York Times profile of the trio in 2022. 

Though flippant about drugs and politics, “Kneecap” argues that both will get you into trouble eventually. It doesn’t help that Arlo’s involvement in some of those car bombings means Detective Ellis (Josie Walker) is always circling. Her inkling that he’s still in the picture, despite his poorly faked death on a fishing boat, is proven right quickly enough. Dolores’ disappointment that Arlo chose activism over his family life is a powerful thread, but feels like it’s from a different film. It’s almost as if Arlo was written into “Kneecap” after Fassbender agreed to join the project. He’s a complex anti-hero with demons from a different era — effectively portrayed, of course, but on a totally different wavelength. He brings gravity to a film that can sometimes feel juvenile. If only “Kneecap” had made better sense of Arlo, it would be cooking with gas.

In the rest of the movie, “Trainspotting” is an obvious reference point, and although there’s no “worst toilet in Scotland” gag, there are some pretty dodgy sinks. The film’s sense of humor is firmly Waititian (for better and worse), with a couple of razor-sharp quips about getting “blown like a Brighton hotel” and concert tickets “selling out like Michael Collins.” Flippant, yes, but deadly serious about where it’s coming from. Expect a flurry of controversy when “Kneecap,” funded in part by the BFI, is released in the UK.

In any film where non-actors play themselves, there’s always a risk that they won’t be any good. But all three members of Kneecap give grounded, clever performances as characters close enough to their own stories, without it ever feeling like a documentary. (That’s what the end credits are for.) Móglaí is the standout, handed the weightier role and the challenge of trying to broach Fassbender’s emotionally challenging subplot. He’s also handsome enough, and with such a natural actor’s face, that you’d think he’d been plucked from drama school rather than the streets of West Belfast. I’m no casting agent, but I’d watch his next film.

The same goes for most involved in “Kneecap,” a sharp and well-made comedy with a better drama glued on the side. In that sense it’s a better audition for its director and stars’ future work than a standalone film. Just don’t expect it to make a good double bill with “Michael Collins.”

Grade: B

“Kneecap” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

Leave a comment