Impressive early, Idris Elba’s directorial debut falters in its concluding act.
There’s something missing from “Yardie.” And on one level the unique characters and unusual setting is enough to hold viewer attention, but what is ultimately done with the intriguing setup is a letdown. Could it be that budgetary restraints kept this adaptation of a popular novel from realizing crime movie greatness? Or was the vision of its director just too limited?
Starting in Kingston, Jamaica, we meet the young Dennis, they call him “D,” played then by Antwayne Eccleston. Following a gangland shooting that leaves one of his classmates shot and killed, D and his older brother, a DJ named Jerry Dread (Everaldo Creary), decide to mount a street party in hopes of healing the rift between two warring parties. Strangely, the rule of law seems notably absent, as the perpetrators of the tragedy are well known and out in the open. This may be how it was in the 1970s in Jamaica. Maybe this is how it was elsewhere, as well.
When the street party turns bloody, D comes into the employ of a gang leader named King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd). Ten years pass, and D (now played by Aml Ameen) rises in the criminal ranks. King Fox gets heavily involved in the music business and eventually into trafficking in cocaine. This brings D to London, where his business for King Fox gets ever more dangerous and complicated.
A revenge tale at its core, “Yardie” is a film in a hurry to end. Everything in London is forced and coincidence and happenstance is amplified at the convenience of the plot. In an effort to propel forward the crime/action elements, critical character development is sacrificed. It’s a real shame, because the almost entirely Afro-Caribbean cast is more than up to the task of hefting weighty emotional situations. Ameen does get authentic moments, especially when acting against a very strong Shantol Jackson, who plays his love Yvonne. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of those moments to engage us when the guns start blasting.
The missteps here are many, with some characters that seem completely out-of-place. For example, Stephen Graham plays a despicable London drug lord named Rico, who deals drugs and prostitution out of a Reggae club. Graham, who is great in almost everything (see “Line of Duty”and many others), adopts a strange shifting accent that is something like that of his Jamaican partners. He’s a sweaty madman, constantly snorting his product, and wildly out of control. At one point, he runs into the London streets and fires a machine gun recklessly into the air. None of this makes any logical sense. How would such a man ever become a crime boss? And that accent, is he faking it to communicate more effectively with his supplier?
Rico is so comical, at times, he’s a positively incompetent criminal. In one inane scene, D tells him that he’s brought him a kilo of cocaine, which is hidden in his pants. For some ridiculous reason, Rico sends D to the bathroom to remove the brick of powder from his underwear. Why would he do that? Naturally, this is a bad decision. In one respect the randomness on display does seem to flow naturally, but there’s never any intensity to it. The pacing of the various action set pieces is off, like the cast is going through the motions instead of experiencing the moment.
The version of “Yardie” I watched was subtitled in English. The reason for this is because of the thick accents employed. I think I could have watched it without the subtitles, and engaged more with the rhythms of the speech. Early on, I thought this might be something like watching Shakespeare, in that the language was known to me, but just different enough to be challenging. Of course, these really beautiful accents are not matched by a rushed and uninventive third act, which is anything but Shakespearean.
Let it be known that I’m a massive fan of actor turned “Yardie” director Idris Elba. The man should be the next James Bond. He’s an intense, passionate and physically imposing screen presence. There are sequences in “Luther” that rank as some of the best television moments of the decade. And I’m certain that he can transfer that passion and intensity onto a cast and crew as a filmmaker. But he holds back too much here.
That scene in the bathroom mentioned above, it should have been a big moment when the audience see the gears turning and D made a fateful decision that changed everything. Instead, we get an awkward chase scene. Moving to the chase was the easy way, and Elba, an actor still fighting for acceptance as a bankable leading man and filmmaker, has never been able to take the easy way in his career. I suspect that this admirable failure will only harden his resolve.