Directed by Idris Elba.
Starring Aml Ameen, Stephen Graham, Calvin Demba, Naomi Ackie, and Shantol Jackson.
Broken by the murder of his older brother, Dennis turns to a life of crime in the backstreets of Kingston, Jamaica circa 1973. A decade later, he’s sent overseas to London, where he reunites with lost family and sets off on a revenge mission after finding his brother’s killer.
Idris Elba makes his feature film debut with this fitfully entertaining yet unmistakably rough-hewn adaptation of Victor Headley’s 1992 novel. There’s certainly proof here that Elba could turn in strong work with a sufficiently finessed script in the future, but even with the promising combined efforts of Martin Stellman (Quadrophenia), Brock Norman Brock (Bronson) and Headley himself here, Yardie is at times tiresomely generic.
Set primarily in 1970s Kingston and then 1980s London, the movie begins with the murder of protagonist Dennis aka D’s (Aml Ameen) brother Jerry (Everaldo Creary) in Jamaica, an event which haunts D for his entire arc throughout the film.
Kingston Don King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd) eventually ships D off to London, where he’s reunited with estranged lover Yvonne (Shantol Jackson) and their young daughter. D wants to do right by them, but naturally his attempts to keep straight don’t last long, and he soon enough finds himself squaring off against volatile, quick-tempered gangster Rico (Stephen Graham).
That synopsis should seem familiar if you’ve seen more than a few crime movies or revenge thrillers in your life, because it is an incredibly stock through-line. While the Jamaican flavour does at least add a certain cultural spicing to proceedings, at its core this still feels like a by-the-numbers, predictable romp more often than not.
From the middling characterisation through to the long-telegraphed twists and turns and the hokey decision to have D’s brother appear periodically in the form of a vision, it mostly smacks of an artist who’s perhaps watched Goodfellas a few times too many. Elba even employs a few of Scorsese’s iconic freeze-frames near the start of the movie, but they hold none of the same emphatic power.
To Elba’s credit, though, this is a handsome enough production, propped up by John Conroy’s evocative lensing and some neat location work. Bar a few ugly digital shots during the brief bursts of fast-moving action, the look and feel is well above competent, if not quite rising to inspired levels.
What truly keeps the film watchable, however, is the performances. The entire ensemble crackles with a lived-in authenticity, even if this does result in some dialogue that might prove ambiguous to non-native ears.
Aml Ameen makes for a likeable, charismatic lead, even if he’s too often forced to wade through the aforementioned cliches to be truly captivating. It might be the terrific Stephen Graham, however, who gives the most memorable performance as Rico, a man who amusingly fleets between Jamaican and Cockney accents on the turn of a dime.
The skilled ensemble are unfortunately routinely stranded with flat, uninspired drama that makes the film feel far longer than its mere 102 minutes. This is especially true in the third act, where the viewer’s mind may wander through some fairly turgid, portentous dialogues, foregone showdowns and sentimental death scenes you’ll see coming miles away. And when the film ends, it ends on an airless ellipsis rather than a surging exclamation point.
Idris Elba’s well-mounted, solidly acted directorial debut is also disappointingly familiar and, eventually, a bit dull. There’s the overwhelming feeling he thinks he’s making a far more unique and profound film than he is, when ultimately the depth of characterisation and richness of the storytelling better evoke the feel of a forgettable TV pilot. With a tighter, more emotionally raw treatment, perhaps the end product wouldn’t feel quite so hackneyed.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.