Sunday, 2 September 2018

Review: Yardie

Cert: 15 / 102 mins / Dir. Idris Elba / Trailer

The problem when you're an actor as accomplished as Idris Elba and you move into directing with a project you're clearly passionate about is… well, expectation. Because people are waiting for great things to follow that BBFC card, and even though that's half the critical battle won, what comes next will be the decider.

Adapted by Martin Stellman and Brock Norman Brock from Victor Headley's 1992 novel, Yardie follows a young Jamaican, D (as in D for Dennis, played by Aml Ameen) making his way up the drug-dealing ladder in 1983 Kingston as he's then sent to London to calm him down. The turf wars of his homeland become the sound-system battles of England's capital, but the difference is only superficial as old scores have followed D across the Atlantic, in addition to the trouble he packed himself…

In short, Yardie is a good film.

In long, it's not a great one, though… Aml Ameen is outstanding in the main role, carrying the charisma of a young Jamie Foxx. I wanted Yardie to be longer just to watch him more and look forward to seeing him lead other movies. Meanwhile, Elba does well to resist the temptation of getting distracted by the story's outlandish secondary characters. Most notably, Stephen Graham's Rico is to Yardie what Sharlto Copley's Vernon is to Free Fire; a loose cannon who amuses and terrifies in equal measure, with a fantastic faux-Jamaican accent which dips into Cockney whenever he loses control*1. Yet he's still used sparingly here; less is more.

The sets and period detail are gorgeous in their urban decay. The claustrophobia of D's life when he reaches England means that the final result looks slightly less than cinematic, but still so much more than televisual. While cinematographer John Conroy has obviously been limited to locales which fit the 1983 aesthetic, East London is presented with the same meticulous affection as West Kingston. Everything in Yardie feels like it's been done on the director's terms, and is more rewarding as a result. It's not so much that it's an 'uncompromising' film tonally, but still one that's been made without compromise.

But it's a film that can't manage to sweep its audience away to another world completely, probably unless they've already got a first-hand nostalgia for the location and era, anyway*2. Yardie never quite manages to find its own voice. While Elba's work has an intimate, if not autobiographical, feel to it, the fingerprints of Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn are plain to see (in the best possible way). An anti-hero trying to find his place among gang wars and infighting, set against the backdrop of a grimy metropolis, this could be the closest to a Grand Theft Auto flick we've had since the game series began. Certainly the closest which also takes its story very seriously.

But that's the problem. Structurally, the tale is so universal that the events could easily be transferred to the echelons of the Mafia, the Yakuza, or yes a GTA spinoff, with barely a beat missed. The only real fingerprint of identity is reduced to a background setting. At the same time, the story here is personal to the point that the stakes never feel that big. It's about D's own struggle rather than that of a movement or an era, and this holds back the flow back because D is a naturally guarded person, he's had to be, so the audience always feel like outsiders.

A crime movie like this is only going to end one of two ways, and you get the impression that either of them wouldn't have had much of an effect on the larger picture. The gang problem existed in both Kingston and London before D got involved, and whether he lives or dies at the end of this, the audience know it'll continue anyway. Similarly, the small family our protagonist manages to start certainly seems to be getting on better in his absence than when he returns in a turbulent cloud of problems. That he cares for them is never in any doubt; whether he's the best thing for them, is. We're interested in D, we just never get the opportunity to really like him. And without that, it's difficult to be rooting for the hero.

There's plenty to enjoy in Yardie. This is a solid directorial debut for Elba, but it feels slightly constrained by working from an adapted novel. But given the man's acting pedigree and now this vision behind the camera, I think Idris is going to be an important filmmaker in the years to come.

Best line: "Take your grandma's suitcase and get to fuck…"

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
Layer Cake, '71.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
Just about.

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
One for the shelf, yes.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
With the best will in the world, it's not.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: That outpost-trader from the Ring Of Kafrene in Rogue One is in this.
You know the one. You do. You know him.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 I'm not going to lie, a lot of the Jamaican conversational dialogue went right over my head, even though the gist of the story was still very clear. Elba made a joke in a recent interview about a subtitled version of the film, and while I realise that would be patronising (especially with screenings in the UK), let's just say I'm looking forward to the DVD... [ BACK ]

*2 And for the record, while we're here, I'm not a fan of Reggae, Dancehall or Ska. So while everyone else is all "oh, but the soundtrack!", that was another hill I was having to climb. I mean it didn't annoy me as I know it's integral to the movie, but at the same time I couldn't use the music as an entry-point to build upon. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

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