is Idris Elba’s first film as a director and what I have to say isn’t what I wanted to say at all. I love Elba and wanted this to be terrific. I wanted him to be as good from behind as he is from the front, so to speak. I wanted this to absolutely smash it as a narrative about the Jamaican-British experience as there have been so few. But, alas, it is a disappointment. It is patchy. It’s not paced excitingly. The characters are insufficiently drawn. And I struggled with the thick Jamaican patois, I must confess. I was often muddled, yet whether it was due to that or the plot was muddled anyway, I cannot say for sure.
This is based on Victory Headley’s cult novel, first published in 1992, and is set in Jamaica and then London in the early 1980s. It opens in Jamaica, in the ravishing countryside. This is home to 10-year old Dennis, known as ‘D’, and his older brother, Jerry (Everaldo Creary). There don’t seem to be any parents on the scene, and D adores Jerry. Kingston is their nearest town, and after a little girl gets killed in the crossfire between two gangs, Jerry wants to bring peace, so he hosts a big party in one of the no-go areas in the hopes of bringing everyone together. I think this is what was happening, anyhow, and it does lead to a heavenly dance scene which, at this stage of the game, made me rather optimistic. But then Jerry is shot dead, and I knew we weren’t entirely in safe hands, directorially, when D fell to his knees, cradled Jerry, and bellowed: ‘Noooooooooo!’. He then looked up with a face that was pure Revenge Face. You know: eyes narrowed, jaw stiffened, resolve fixed. They do say with cinema that you should show, not tell, but I’m not sure it’s this kind of showing they had in mind.
Spool forward a decade and D (now played by Aml Ameen) is dealing drugs for King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd). King Fox is one of the gang leaders but he took D in the night his brother died and ‘he is like a father to me’. I think that’s what D said, anyhow. But D lands in trouble when he imagines he’s spotted his brother’s killer and does for him. To save D from retaliation, King Fox dispatches him to London, but with a big pack of cocaine. D already has a wife in London, Yvonne (Shantol Jackson), who moved there some years earlier to give their little daughter a safer life.
His one job is to hand the cocaine to Rico (Stephen Graham), a bonkers and vicious Hackney gangster, but instead he goes rogue with it, which did seem phenomenally stupid, but there you are. From here on in it goes all formulaic, with deals and double deals and routine violence and even freeze-framing on new characters as D’s voiceover tells us who they are. (Very Guy Ritchie). As far as I could follow it, it seemed to stop being one story (about the drugs) halfway through to become another (revenge), but most problematically, at least for me, was the fact that we are meant to be rooting for D, and loving D, and admiring D, even though he keeps putting his wife and child in mortal danger and at one point holds a gun to a terrified woman’s head. Therefore, D could take a hike, as far as I was concerned.
So, a disappointment, sadly, but I did not fall to my knees and bellow ‘Noooooooo.’ Just wasn’t in the mood.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.