Tuesday, 30 November 2010
Stop me if you've heard this one before:
Career criminal gets out of prison and attempts to go straight whilst struggling against the influence of a drug/alcohol addled friend, a deranged family member and an underworld overlord. He finds solace in the arms of an unlikely lover and begins to hope for a brighter future riding into the sunset with her. Can he untangle himself from the web of violence and corruption he is entwined in, or will he be dragged down forever?
"London Boulevard" is a little bit "Carlito's Way", it's a little bit "Layer Cake", there are a lot of echoes of Guy Ritchie's oeuvre, particularly "Rocknrolla", there's a sprinkling of "Scarface" in there, a dash of "The Long Good Friday"... basically it is a pretty generic gangster flick.
The only thing to distinguish it from the teeming masses of thug-life films is the introduction of Keira Knightley as the reclusive movie-star unlikely-love interest. There is an attempt to comment on or at least address the constant oppression of celebrity, as Knightley's Charlotte hires Colin Farrell's Mitchell, a newly paroled heavy, to protect her from paparazzi and stalkers and whatnot. So it's a little bit "The Bodyguard" too. Originality is not its strongest suit.
Where the film does excel, however, is in the eclectic and electric casting and in the streaks of dry, black humour that permeate first-time director William (author of "The Departed") Monahan's script. Farrell exudes quiet menace and shadowy morality, punctuated with Monahan's patented propensity for explosions of pugilistic pub-based punchery, and has a quiet, awkward tenderness in scenes with Knightley and Anna Friel as his alky sister. His cockney accent is okay n'all. Knightley herself is fine in what is basically a supporting role, alternating between twitchy and nervous and free-spirited and alluring, but it is the backline who get the best riffs here.
David Thewlis does his usual "best thing in the movie" routine, playing a louche and lethargic associate of Knightley's who basically lounges around her house smoking dope and waxing lyrical as only Thewlis can, until his services are required in some unsavoury matters and he reveals a surprising aptitude for violence. He is almost matched in the scene-stealing stakes by his other half, Anna Friel, playing Mitchell's sot of a sister as childlike seductress: apparently airbrained and innocent, but always with one eye on some poor sap's wallet. Her uneasy relationship with Farrell, and their peculiar chemistry lend an eerily incestuous subtext to their scenes (hello, "Scarface"). Ben Chaplin makes a fine showing as another reprobate trying to keep Mitchell on the wide and winding road of crime, all twitching and sweating and cowardice; Eddie Marsan is a creepily amiable bent copper, Stephen Graham has a couple of scenes and manages to get a true Scouse "Calm down" in, Super Hans from "Peep Show" pops up on and off, Jamie Campbell Bower is unrecognisable (well, I didn't know it was him) as a cocky wannabe-rasta, Sanjeev Bhaskar is a selfless Doctor, and then there's Ray Winstone.
Winstone plays a crime-boss named Gant, who is as disturbingly unhinged as Jack Nicholson's Frank Costello in "The Departed". Winstone can do this type of role in his sleep, but Monahan gives the character a number of party quirks, allowing Winstone to grab the part with both hands and create something that feels unfamiliar even on well-trodden ground.
It is apparent that Monahan is an actor's director, gifting his performers with choice dialogue and unusual actions and giving them the reign to build something unique, but his visual style and editing choices leave something to be desired. The look of the film is indistinct but not entirely disagreeable, but there are occasional jarring edits and unusual cutaways that will jerk you out of the film for a second or two.
So a promising, if not earth-shattering directorial debut for a great screenwriter. Certainly worth a gander if you like your gangster flicks with meaty dialogue, bizarre characters and frequent violent outbursts, and worth the price of admission for Thewlis, Friel and Winstone alone. Just be prepared to be told a story that you may feel you've heard before.