Michael Fassbender Is an Absentee Irish Rap Daddy

The Big Picture

  • Kneecap embraces a heightened sense of the past, rather than being bound by literal events.
  • The main trio of maniac musicians are all captured authentically, with their rough edges remaining intact.
  • Michael Fassbender’s presence feels forced and unnatural, often making the film’s rhythm more conventional.


There is something quite strange about Michael Fassbender’s presence in a film like Kneecap. Not because of anything he does as his performance actually sticks out as being rather stiff. Rather, it is who he is alongside. In a film that is built around the already charismatic real people Liam Óg Ó hAnnaidh, Naoise Ó Cairealláin, and JJ Ó Dochartaigh all playing themselves as it traces the rise of their rap group Kneecap, did it really need a bigger name actor to play a part? Can a film like this not live and die by its more authentic details?

Kneecap

Explores the birth of Kneecap, a hip and naughty Irish rap group.

Release Date
January 18, 2024

Director
Rich Peppiatt

Runtime
105 minutes

Main Genre
Comedy

Writers
Rich Peppiatt

Not only does the answer increasingly feel like no, it didn’t, but the end credits of the film, where we peek behind the curtain to see the trio just being themselves in the world, feels far more engagingly electric than much of the often effectively pointed though frequently scattered musical biopic they’re in. Despite having a benefit that other middling recent musical biopics do not in that they can capture their subjects by exploring their actual personalities, it still is forced at key moments. Much like the decision to include Fassbender, despite him not feeling right for the role, it comes across as just a little too constructed and calculated when this story called for a more organic approach that just let these three Irish maniacs be themselves. We get plenty of that, but not as much as one would hope.


What Is ‘Kneecap’ About?

Beginning with a cheeky acknowledgment of how some of the less interesting elements of Irish cinema can flatten decades of history into just being a quick succession of explosion shots, we get a humorous flashback recreation of Fassbender’s patriarch flipping off a police helicopter while a baptism takes place. This represents the more interesting aspect of writer-director Rich Peppiatt‘s film as it proves to be frequently less interested in recreating what happened literally and more in expressing how it feels looking back on it. This means that when we flash forward to the present and get to know the trio in the modern day, this sense of more anarchic flair continues as they begin to come together to form their group. Sometimes, this is as simple as text popping on the screen to underline a point or help hammer home a punchline. In other moments, drug trip sequences (usually the effects of ketamine) will distort what we’re seeing, making use of absurd visual effects and even occasional stop-motion animation. It gives the otherwise by-the-numbers biopic more energy when it counts.

At the same time, there is a more serious undercurrent to the film surrounding language, repression, and culture. Speaking Irish, which is not as common an occurrence amongst Irish people as one may think, is something that initially brings the characters together as one gets arrested and refuses to speak English while being interrogated. It makes for an effectively silly yet still serious back-and-forth that sets the stage for its more thematic interests. Some flashbacks feel a little more broadly sketched (again inserting Fassbender into the affair), though help establish how the main rapping duo were taught the importance of not forgetting their language from a young age. It isn’t just speaking with an accent, though this film does a much better job of capturing this than some other terrible recent works that reduce it to that. Rather, it’s about the connection it provides with an entire history that could soon be lost if people forget the words, their meanings, and the power they can hold when put to song.

Thus, when the group begins not just speaking, but also rapping in Irish, they start to find an audience of people who similarly want to maintain a connection to this part of themselves. Though the trio are still mostly musical maniacs looking to either get high or get laid, which leads to several uproarious sex scenes, they end up becoming part of something bigger than themselves. The trouble is, the film can often make them and this journey feel a little small. Its more conventional plotting doesn’t hold it back entirely, but the rhythm to the experience frequently can fall into being more rote than riotous. For all the ways the rap group couldn’t care about any of the rules, their biopic is ultimately more standard than spectacular.

‘Kneecap’ Authentically Captures the Irish Rap Group

A dark theater with a screen lit up that reads Sundance Film Festival 2024.
Image via Sundance

Despite these structural shortcomings, the main cast of characters remains good fun when we keep focused on them and less on the others that keep popping in. While having people play themselves could easily risk falling into hagiography, Kneecap never feels like it is sanding off the rougher edges of the group to make them more digestible. Rather, it comes across as an authentic, if certainly exaggerated portrait, of what they’re all about. After pushing up against the confines of a conventional musical biopic, it does end up mostly operating within them, hitting all the notes you’d expect it to hit, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t ring mostly true when it counts. Will it be remembered as one of the greatest rap movies ever made? Probably not. But is it an engaging enough movie about this specific rap group with the impact they’ve had? In this case, yes. At the very least, it is a film that isn’t afraid to bare its ass to make its message about music and the language that makes it heard.

Kneecap Sundance Film Festival 2024 Movie Image

Kneecap

REVIEW

Kneecap may not be the most inventive of musical biopics, but it does a solid job of creating a profile of the Irish rap group that became part of something bigger than themselves.

Pros

  • Rather than always be bound by what may have literally happened, the film embraces the more heightened sense of what the past can feel like when you’re looking back on it.
  • The film succeeds at capturing the main trio of musicians as they are, without any of their rougher edges feeling like they have been sanded down.
Cons

  • Michael Fassbender sticks out as a stiff attempt at bringing in a big name actor when the main characters feel much more organic.
  • The film’s rhythm often falls into being more rote than riotous with conventional plotting that is more standard than spectacular.

Kneecap had its World Premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

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