'Hyena': Edinburgh Review

Road-to-perdition cop-saga takes a familiar, modish route through the mean streets.

Writer-director Gerard Johnson's sophomore feature, starring Peter Ferdinando as a corrupt London cop, opens the 68th edition of the Scottish festival.

The title of broodingly overwrought London-set policier Hyena may never be spoken in writer-director Gerard Johnson's sophomore feature, but it unfortunately fits just fine. The eponymous loping scavenger is neither cat nor dog, despite displaying traits both feline and canine; Johnson's swaggering exercise in hand-me-down stylistics likewise frustrates categorization. Trying to hybridize thick-ear genre material with more artistically ambitious fare, the results are too leaden for the Jason Statham crowd but insufficiently distinctive to find a more rarefied niche. Prospects at home may be helped by a high-profile opening slot at Edinburgh, but while DVD/VOD takings should comfortably outstrip October's U.K. theatrical release, this Hyena is unlikely to leave anyone laughing all the way to the bank.

The picture's one consistent trump card is Peter Ferdinando, front-and-center throughout as world-weary plain-clothes detective Michael Logan. Almost unrecognizable as the murderously dweeby lead from Johnson's 2009 debut, low-key serial-killer drama Tony, Ferdinando convinces as a relatively decent individual led by circumstances and character flaws into dubious, criminal behavior. Early on we learn he's sunk £100,000 ($170,000) into an illegal operation importing drugs from Turkey across Europe: an investment imperiled when his business associate falls foul of Albanian rivals and is hacked to death in front of his eyes. Logan thus becomes entangled in a vicious turf war, while coping with the inevitable workplace pressures from sneering, besuited superiors. Adding to the general atmosphere of hackneyed corniness, Logan then becomes smitten with Ariana (Elisa Lisowski), a beautiful, "trafficked" young woman, haplessly ensnared by the Albanians.

Ariana, like Logan's long-suffering girlfriend Lisa (MyAnna Buring), is more cipher than character — likewise the bestial Albanian brothers (Orli Shuka, Gjevat Kelmendi) whose two-dimensional bloodthirsty nastiness results in a brace of gory set pieces that provide welcome punctuation to the otherwise steadily simmering mood of generalized nocturnal nefariousness. Boardwalk Empire's Stephen Graham has regrettably limited screen time as Logan's one-time partner Knight, and a bigger impact is made by Tony Pitts as Logan's defiantly old-school sidekick Keith, whose casual prejudice clearly is intended to make Logan seem more in tune with 21st century sensibilities.

A crude racial epithet from this bluff, buff Yorkshireman is the very first word heard, but any hopes that Hyena might boldly tackle hot-button topics of prejudice and social friction in contemporary Britain quickly are dashed. It doesn't help that the mumbled dialogue seldom rises above the strictly functional: "If I talk to you I'm dead" moans one questionee; "You'll be going to prison for a very long time" comes the reply; "He's losing consciousness!" Logan yelps as Knight adopts brutally direct methods. Several crucial plot points, meanwhile, distractingly strain credulity, and it's advisable to concentrate on the alluring, scuzzy nuances of Benjamin Kracun's night-burnishing widescreen cinematography.

While the flavorful Turkish-culture backdrop occasionally glimpsed could ideally have conjured a worthwhile U.K. variant on Omar Shargawi's pulsating tale of Copenhagen's Muslim community, Go With Peace Jamil, Johnson disappointingly settles for yet another flat-foot foray into the world of "dodgy" cops as seen in The Sweeney, Welcome to the Punch and Filth. His strenuous attempts to add a personal stamp to proceedings largely underwhelm, though a confidently handled, slam-bang night-club raid in the first reel packs a certain Clockwork Orange pizzazz.

A heavy debt to Gaspar Noe is unsubtly signaled here by a collision of fire extinguisher and face; dabs of Michael Mann and Nicolas Winding Refn duly pop up elsewhere in the palette, while Johnson's sub-De Palma addiction to slo-mo yields diminishing rewards as self-confidence shades into self-consciousness. When in doubt, the director cranks up the assaultively reverberant score from po-faced '80s rockers The The (aka Matt Johnson, the director's brother), which at least provides intermittent pep to this increasingly torpid wallow in the moral mud.

Production company: Number 9 Films
Cast: Peter Ferdinando, Elisa Lasowski, Stephen Graham, Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring
Director-screenwriter: Gerard Johnson
Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen, Joanna Laurie, Stephen Woolley
Executive producer: Sam Lavender, Katherine Butler, Norman Merry
Cinematographer: Benjamin Kracun
Production designer: Marie Lanna
Costume designer: Suzie Harman
Editor: Ian Davies
Composer: The The (Matt Johnson)
Sales: Independent Film Company, London

No Rating, 112 minutes