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In his feature directing debut, Idris Elba shows a decent grasp of the fundaments of old-fashioned, novelistic storytelling. But for a movie that throbs with the reggae-inflected beats of a punchy soundtrack, Yardie is a rather listless gangland saga, lacking the muscularity that the genre demands. Adapted from Victor Headley’s 1992 black British pulp novel, which became a U.K. publishing sensation, and laced with dialogue in thick Jamaican patois, the film might hold some charm for audiences nostalgic for the multi-culti mean streets of 1980s East London and the taste of Red Stripe lager. But it’s a pedestrian effort that could have used a serious hit of Elba’s dangerous charisma onscreen.
Shot by John Conroy, who worked with Elba on the BBC crime drama Luther, the film opens with a bold widescreen splash of color in the lush green hills outside Kingston, Jamaica in 1973. Ten-year-old Dennis (Antwayne Eccleston), who goes by D, announces in voiceover that this will be the story of the path he chose between the righteous and the damned.
Kingston has long been in the grip of a gang war when D’s adored older brother Jerry (Everaldo Creary) gets shot while orchestrating a dancehall-style detente between the two leaders in the no man’s land separating each side’s turf. At the traditional ceremony nine nights after Jerry’s death, D refuses to let the Rasta peacemaker’s spirit go. He continues to see visions of his dead brother as he grows up vowing to take revenge on his killer.
In the meantime, D (played as a young adult by Aml Ameen) works his way up to become the No. 1 soldier for crime lord King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), who moves from music production into cocaine. D has a daughter with his childhood sweetheart Yvonne (Shantol Jackson), but she whisks the baby off to England to give her a better life. D stays behind, still obsessed with avenging Jerry’s death, until Fox gets fed up with his “mad dog” behavior and dispatches him on an errand to London with a kilo of coke strapped to his leg. The relocation makes him a “yardie” in the popular parlance used to refer to Jamaican ex-pats.
D immediately makes an enemy of Hackney gangster Rico (Stephen Graham), a bonkers white Jamaican, keeping the cocaine to sell to yuppies through more lucrative Turkish mafia channels. His attempts to resume his relationship with Yvonne and be a father to their child are complicated by his criminal activity, of which she wants no part. But any thoughts of extricating himself from that world are put on hold when he catches up with Jerry’s killer, Clancy (Riaze Foster).
There’s a lot of plot in the script by Brock Norman Brock and Martin Stellman, as well as a truckload of characters. That includes a “soundclash” crew ominously called High Noon, led by DJ Sticks (Calvin Demba); he becomes a loyal friend to D after a rocky start, but pays a price. Various strands lead toward the haunted D’s long-awaited face-off with Clancy; an old-school dancehall battle pitting High Noon against Rico’s outfit, while his goons try to ice D; the arrival of King Fox, with ugly secrets to reveal; and Yvonne intervening in a bid to stop the violence after her daughter’s life is endangered.
All the ingredients are here for an exciting mix, a kind of Anglo-Caribbean Goodfellas-meets-City of God. There’s a semblance of vigorousness, but Elba struggles to inject much sustained grit or dynamism into the narrative, or spark much investment in the characters, despite a capable cast led with lean, edgy physicality by Ameen, who has great chemistry with Jackson. There’s no shortage of cultural and period specificity, but the movie is still somehow lacking in texture.
The main tool used to counter that is music, mixing a score by Dickon Hinchliffe of Tindersticks with fabulous tracks that span the story’s decades, from Lord Creator’s “Kingston Town” and The Isley Brothers’ “Work to Do” through Grace Jones’ “My Jamaican Guy” and Black Uhuru’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” But just as the music elements never really seem all that essential to the plot, nor does the soundtrack do enough to disguise the dramatic deficiencies.
Cast: Aml Ameen, Shantol Jackson, Stephen Graham, Fraser James, Everaldo Creary, Sheldon Shepherd, Naomie Ackie, Calvin Demba, Johann Myers, Adnan Mustafa, Jumayn Hunter, Duramaney Kamara
Production companies: Warp Films, StudioCanal
Director: Idris Elba
Screenwriters: Brock Norman Brock, Martin Stellman, based on the novel by Victor Headley
Producers: Gina Carter, Robin Gutch
Executive producers: Dan MacRae, Danny Perkins, Joe Oppenheimer, Hugo Heppell, Mark Herbert, Mary Burke,
Director of photography: John Conroy
Production designer: Damien Creagh
Costume designer: James Keast
Music: Dickon Hinchcliffe
Editor: Justine Wright
Casting: Shaheen Baig
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
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