UK Release Date: 31st August 2018
Runtime: 102 minutes
Director: Idris Elba
Writer: Brock Norman Brock, Martin Stellman
Starring: Aml Ameen, Shantol Jackson, Sheldon Shepherd, Stephen Graham, Naomi Ackie
Synopsis: Years after his brother’s shooting, a young man reignites an old drug gang turf war in Jamaica and is sent to London as a result, where he only finds more trouble.
The old adage for creative people of working with what you know has certainly proved true for Idris Elba. His debut feature as a director is set in 1980s Hackney, where and when he grew up, and heavily focuses on the world of DJing, with which ‘Big Driis’ is intimately familiar. He’s of African descent rather than Caribbean, but that didn’t prevent him from identifying with the world of Victor Headley’s novel Yardie when it hit bookshelves in 1992 and became something of a literary sensation. More than a quarter of a century later, it is this material with which Elba is marking his entry into the world of filmmaking. And for the most part, he’s done a solid job.
It’s a proficient movie across the board, helped by a detail-driven evocation of 1980s Hackney. But before that, the movie opens in 1970s Kingston as youngster Dennis, known as D, witnesses the assassination of his brother during a musical event designed to unite feuding drug gangs. Years later, D (Aml Ameen) is working for crime boss King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd) until a ghost from his past brings old fault lines to the surface. To calm things down, D is sent to London in order to facilitate a deal between Fox and London gangster Rico (Stephen Graham), while he also takes the opportunity to reconnect with his estranged wife Yvonne (Shantol Jackson) and their daughter. Of course, he can’t escape the past there either.
That plot sounds rather generic, and that gets to the heart of what’s a little bit disappointing about Yardie. Elba the actor is an unconventional and uniquely charismatic performer, but that charisma is largely absent from his maiden directorial effort. In its place is a swagger and confidence that is very well-placed – Elba clearly knows how to make a movie – but seems at odds with the very workmanlike approach to the movie. Visually, the movie is at its best when it daubs the screen with colour for the Jamaica-set opening because, although the London stuff might be period-accurate, it’s entirely devoid of the energy and life that powered Shane Meadows’s take on Thatcher’s Britain in This is England.
Much of the film’s energy, though, comes from the cast. Ameen made a big impression as the tragic lead in Kidulthood and is impressive here, even if the character’s motivations don’t always make sense in terms of how he acts. The true standout is Shantol Jackson, who is tremendous as a rather under-written woman, maximising her minutes to deliver the maximum amount of passion and presence, while also landing several excellent comic beats. The showiest performance by far is that of Stephen Graham – who himself has Jamaican ancestry on his father’s side – in a role that sees him veer between friendly patois and sinister Cockney as things quickly go south.
Yardie is at its best when it focuses on these characters, but really suffers when it comes to the plot. The final act is a mess of murky motivations and needless violent interludes. There’s also a noticeable uptick in rather unnecessary visual tricks – Dutch angles aplenty and horror movie apparitions from D’s past – that rob the movie of its impact and momentum. For the most part, though, this is a very solid piece of work from Elba and a debut that announces his arrival as a filmmaker worth keeping an eye on.
Pop or Poop?
Idris Elba certainly has a career as a director ahead of him, but Yardie feels like a first feature in just about every way. It’s solid and neatly made, with some excellent visual styling in its first half that gives way to definite period detail in the second half.
Unfortunately, it’s in amongst all of that period detail that the movie loses sight of its thriller mechanics and becomes somewhat aimless, fizzling out a long time before the credits roll.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.