When you watch one of Hollywood's ''political thrillers'' a Tom Clancy rabble-rouser, say, in which Harrison Ford has to defend his family against the wrath of Bulgarian terrorists the chips couldn't be more neatly stacked. The hero, beneath his cool swagger, remains as invincibly square-jawed as John Wayne. The villains, by contrast, are evil incarnate brutish fanatics whose criminality is presented as a form of higher sadism. (When the Cold War ended, it was often asked who'd replace the Communists as bad guys. Answer: any foreigner with a bomb.) A critic who rails against the demagogic shallowness of a Clancy (or Grisham) thriller can sound like a moralistic killjoy, but the truth is that a lot of us have simply grown bored with the black-and-white formulas of ''ideological'' suspense.
That's what makes Alan J. Pakula's The Devil's Own such a welcome surprise. In this quiet, absorbing, shades-of-gray drama, a kind of thriller meditation on the schism in Northern Ireland, we get the story of not one but two powerfully opposing heroes. The year is 1992. The modern Troubles, now over a generation old, are stranded between apathy and nihilism; the bloody passions persist, yet no one quite knows anymore what they're fighting for. Brad Pitt, a veteran IRA terrorist, arrives in New York City under the name Rory Devaney in order to purchase a cargo of stinger missiles. Through connections, he gets a fake green card and a front as a construction worker and is put up in the Staten Island home of Tom O'Meara (Harrison Ford), an affable Irish-American cop who hasn't a clue as to Rory's true identity or mission. Tom just thinks his family is playing host to a hale young immigrant from the old country.
We get to know both men, and we come to understand their differing relationships to violence. Rory, whose real name is Frank McGuire, saw his fisherman father blown away at the dinner table by masked gunmen when he was 8 years old. Now a terrorist assassin wanted for murder by the British government, he views his life as an elemental war between surrender and violence, impotence and justice. The IRA cause is literally the only one that makes sense to him. Tom, by contrast, is a veteran of the police force who has fired his gun exactly four times in 23 years. He despises violence (though he isn't afraid of it). He believes not in unrestrained force but in the law. The Devil's Own has a fairly conventional outline, but the film's brooding intrigue comes from the way it makes us understand and sympathize with both men's points of view, even as we can see that they're on a collision course.
It's standard for a thiller to let its most charismatic actor occupy the moral high ground. Star quality, in essence, becomes politics. The Devil's Own works in a similar fashion, except that here each stance receives its own matinee-idol boost. Pitt, in what may be his most supple performance to date, plays Rory as a silky Belfast hunk who's all cold steel underneath. Speaking in a seductive burr, gazing slyly from beneath coppery-blond locks, Pitt, with his velvet softness, makes us desperate to see him at his most romantic as a sexy political swashbuckler and it's therefore all the more disquieting when his rigid, do-or-die priorities pop out with merciless cunning. We can't help but admire Rory's fearlessness, but Pitt's magnetism testifies to the humanity an organization like the IRA shoves underground. Ford, in a superb performance, might be playing a more life-size variation on Clancy's Jack Ryan. Tom, too, will do anything to protect his family, but the most powerful emotion Ford summons isn't gritted-teeth machismo it's a mingling of sorrow and disgust at those who'd give in to bloodshed, even when, like his police partner (Ruben Blades), they're acting on years of watching crooks get away.
The Devil's Own doesn't have the explosive, life-is-a-demolition-derby zap we've come to expect in urban thrillers. Episodes of mayhem are spaced further apart than we're used to, so that when a couple of masked thugs break into the O'Meara home, the encounter has a genuine hair-trigger terror. It's not just an ''action moment'': You're aware of the cringing vulnerability beneath Ford's show of strength. At the same time, the plot of The Devil's Own is larded with movieish situations and characters. There's an arms-dealing Mr. Big (Treat Williams), a willowy Irish love interest (Natascha McElhone), and the melodramatic question of whether Ford is going to lie for his partner. The downside of Pakula's somber, artful approach is that we're that much more aware of the hokeyness of these devices indeed, that we're watching high-grade popcorn. But then the actors will shine through. When Rory attends the Catholic confirmation of Tom's daughter, the camera fixes on him as he listens to the commandments. Staring into Brad Pitt's face, we can see a life of terrorism pass before his eyes. Rory may believe in his cause, but he can't pretend he's not a sinner. At moments like that, The Devil's Own knows the true price of violence.