Since Guy Ritchie’s 1998 feature debut Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, British drama has been obsessed with cliched gangster movies. They’re relatively low cost to make, quick turnaround shoots with huge box office opportunity. Stylistically a mixture of fifties kitchen sink drama and the angry young men fronted British New Wave, the genre today has quickly become an outmoded self-parody, in desperate need of revitalising. Along comes venerable actor Dexter Fletcher. Rising from the fag ash of Guy Ritchie’s Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, his first foray into filmmaking takes the same hackneyed themes of…Hackney, and tells a new story full of satire, sincerity and heart.
After eight years behind bars, “Wild Bill” Hayward (Charlie Creed-Miles) returns home to his family in their tower block home. The wife is nowhere to be seen, abandoning their two children – paternal teenager Dean (Will Poulter) and his potty mouthed brother Jimmy (Sammy Williams) – for the sunny sights of Spain with her new boyfriend.
A tough nestle back in to normality, the broken home soon leads to social services reps (Jaime Winstone and Jason Flemyng) asking questions. They fend them off by pretending to play happy families, but the bossy Dean tells his workshy dad to go straight and get a job. Doing porridge has changed the ex-drug dealer, but unfortunately the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as Jimmy is accosted by local thug Terry (Leo Gregory) as a drug mule. Fighting for his freedom on the outside, Bill steps back in to the game, saving his son and taking a quick crash course on parenthood in the process.
Whilst the story is far from revolutionary, Fletcher and his writing partner Danny King have crafted a truly excellent script, which is neither excessively ghettoized, nor saccharine. The good works lead to good performances too, particularly from Son of Rambow‘s Bill Poultner, showing great range as the apathetic teenager turned surrogate father figure. Virtually a non-budget movie, it’s clear that Fletcher went through the phonebook and asked for a few favours of his supporting cast. Everyone’s here: the compelling Olivia Williams as the concerned social worker, Sean Pertwee as the no-nonsense constable who through Bill in the slammer those eight years ago and, best of all, Andy Serkis puts down the motion capture play things for a menacing performance as an East London mafioso. I wish he put down the motion capture play things and started doing more straight-up screen performances; his animated face-acting is always a scene stealer.
Unfortunately there is some duds amongst all the finite work. Misfits‘ Iwan Rhoen is insufferable as a slang-tastic hoodlum – so much that he even starts to annoy his co-stars. Newcomer Liz White’s turn as an abused call girl is too flippant and lacks character depth. The biggest disappointment comes from Wild Bill himself. Sublime as a drugged-up Billy incarnate in Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth, he is too emotionally uncharged throughout.
Evenstill, it’s still a brilliant debut from Fletcher. Working on film sets since the young age of ten when he played Baby Face in Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone, he clearly has a deep insight of how to craft a story, shoot a scene and carve out some solid performances. All that, plus a great ska fever soundtrack and the best pub-fight sequence since Shaun of the Dead. It’s as good as a gangster film can get. Let’s hope he puts down the faux-Burberry scarves and trade them in for invigorated, ambitious new material.