City of Tiny Lights, 2016.
Directed by Pete Travis.
Starring Riz Ahmed, Billie Piper, James Floyd, Cush Jumbo, Roshan Seth, and Antonio Aakeel.
Meet Tommy Akhtar (Riz Ahmed), cricket fan, devoted son to an ailing father and deadbeat private eye. He’s got an office above a cab firm, a taste for cigarettes and bourbon, and a finely tuned moral compass that he keeps hidden behind a sharp cynicism. When Tommy walks into his office one morning to find high-class prostitute Melody seeking his help, he’s launched into a story that plays as an utterly original modern noir.
To declare Riz Ahmed as having “a bit of a moment” would be an understatement. To stumble on a piece of media without him making an appearance takes certain effort. He’s seemingly in everything, from bit part roles – maybe glorified cameos – in Girls and Netflix’ baffling The OA to his scene stealing role as handsome rebel Bodhi in Rogue One.
Taking this into account, it could only take so long before he drops the ball. And oh how he drops the ball with City of Tiny Lights, an initially interesting if slightly hokey neo-noir that descends into student film levels of absurdity. Pete Travis, whose previous film Dredd inspires certain hope, struggles with a narrative that swerves manically from nonsensical plotting to nonsensical plotting whilst juggling a script hopelessly incoherent.
Ahmed stars as Tommy Akhtar, a chain-smoking private detective who finds himself on the hunt for a missing prostitute. What starts as an open-closed case morphs into something of immense complexity, bringing in those he hasn’t seen since a teenager, long lost love interest Shirley (Billie Piper), the housing market and the Muslim community he tried so desperately to distance himself from.
Told parallel are misjudged flashbacks to Tommy as a teenager attempting to woo Shirley and finding his place amidst his group of friends. All this whilst acting as a superhero-style origin story defining why it is he is perennially.
Ahmed impresses in the only role with any meat on it. His big eyes add sadness to a one-note character defined by an uninteresting back-story and a convoluted emotional history whilst Billie Piper – in her first film since 2005 -tries valiantly to reach the heady heights of femme fatale gone before. This isn’t the fault of either. Few actors could inspire hope when reading dialogue so inconsistent and over-wrought whilst their shared chemistry is never anything more than slightly, if unremarkably palatable.
What’s strangest is the lack of directorial vision Travis lends to the whole stodgy affair. His Dredd was a bold, brash descent into a criminal dystopian underworld where every shot dazzled. Less so with City of Tiny Lights. A simple two-shot in a car lies waste to a mess of blunders – mainly that of terribly out-of-sync audio, whilst his handling of the copious amount of plotting seems to resemble a one armed juggler playing with too many balls.
It’s rather a shame. It touches on some interesting topics far grander than the film itself. Tommy’s Muslim upbringing is the clear focal point but amasses to little whilst Travis – to his credit, avoids the clichés of London as modern city, all shining lights and grand skyscrapers, placating it for a celebration of all that makes it diverse.
There’s sadly little more to it. It’s clear Travis is enamored with classic noir, but he struggles to translate that adoration to anything more than a half shrug. Ahmed is a star, and that’s clear, it’s a disappointment then that City of Tiny Lights tries so hard to dull it.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★