'Villain': Film Review

VILLAIN - Publicity still 2 - H 2020
Courtesy of Saban Films
Standard genre material brought to life by a quietly compelling performance.

Craig Fairbrass plays an ex-con who gets drawn back into the underworld in Philip Barantini's crime thriller.

Stop me if you've heard this before. Someone who's always been on the wrong side of the law is determined to go straight and start a new life. But just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in.

That's the premise of Philip Barantini's British gangster drama, and to say it's unoriginal is an understatement. Nonetheless, Villain exerts a powerful pull, thanks both to the effective use of gritty East London locations and the terrific lead performance by Craig Fairbrass, displaying his intimidating physical presence and simmering, low-key charisma. The veteran actor keeps the film percolating despite its overfamiliar aspects.

The hulking 6-foot-3 Fairbrass plays Eddie, who at the story's beginning has just been released from prison after serving an eight-year sentence. The gestures of affection accorded Eddie by both fellow prisoners and guards as he's exiting speaks volumes about the character, who is clearly someone as much to be respected as feared.

Eddie would like nothing more than to resume his old life as the owner of a successful pub, minus the extracurricular criminal activities that landed him in the slammer. Unfortunately, he discovers that his younger brother Sean (George Russo, who also co-scripted) has let the establishment become run-down in his absence. More problematically, the drug-addicted Sean, who's dating a surly stripper (Eloise Lovell Anderson), has gotten deeply and dangerously in debt to the Garrett brothers (Robert Glenister, Tomi May), local crime bosses for whom he's been working as a drug mule.

It's up to Eddie, then, to sort out the situation, and if you think he's going to do so peacefully, you just haven't seen enough gangster films. Meanwhile, he's also trying to sort out his personal issues, including reconnecting with his estranged daughter Chloe (Izuka Hoyle), who has given birth to a grandson he meets for the first time and is involved in a relationship with the abusive, hot-tempered Jason (Taz Skylar).

Director Barantini, a longtime actor making his feature directorial debut, concentrates largely on atmosphere and characterizations, occasionally indulging in stylistic devices involving chronological jumps and deliberately confusing editing. While there's plenty of onscreen violence, most of it is depicted in relatively discreet fashion; even a lengthy dismemberment scene feels decorous, if no less horrifying.

The emotions on display, however, are consistently raw and ugly. The scenes between Eddie and Chloe are particularly powerful, with Hoyle outstanding as the aggrieved daughter and Fairbrass making the most of more nuanced dramatic material than usual. The actor is actually at his most compelling not when his character springs into action, but rather in the coiled moments leading up to it.

Indeed, the performances are first-rate all around; Russo makes the troubled Sean somehow sympathetic despite his fateful flaws, and Glenister (best known on these shores for his role as a con man in the hit British series Hustle) is mesmerizing as the more dominant of the sibling criminals.

It's hard not to wish that the unimaginatively titled Villain featured more idiosyncratic aspects (while avoiding the excessive stylization and quirkiness of, say, Guy Ritchie's films), or had resisted the urge to lean in so heavily to its fatalism. The downbeat ending, in particular, feels designed to lend the proceedings a patina of seriousness that doesn't feel entirely earned. Nonetheless, the film proves a strong vehicle for its formidable leading man, who manages to render his character's emotional vulnerability more compelling than his machismo.

Production companies: Ascendant Films, Double Dutch International, White Hot Productions, Medium Kool Films
Distributor: Saban Films (Available on VOD)
Cast: Craig Fairbrass, George Russo, Izuka Hoyle, Mark Monero, Tomi May, Eloise Lovell Anderson, Taz Skylar, Nicholas Aaron, Robert Glenister, Michael John Treanor, Marcus Onilude
Director: Philip Barantini
Screenwriters: George Russo, Greg Hall
Producer: Bart Ruspoli
Executive producers: Jason Moring, Stanley Preschutti, Mark Padilla, Ian Kirk, Sara Shedev, Philip Barantini, Ming Zhu, George Russo, Greg Hall, Craig Fairbrass
Director of photography: Matthew Lewis
Production designer: Aimee Meek
Editor: Alex Fountain
Composers: David Ridley, Aaron May
Costume designer: Arianna Del Cero

Rated R, 97 minutes