Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) is that oh-so-dangerous kind of gangster --- the type that is trying to finally go legit, and therefore has the most to lose. He has an iron fist on London's organized crime and he has a finger in every dirty little pie (except drugs) in England's greatest city. Harold has managed to keep the peace between the various criminal groups that he oversees for over a decade, and now (which is in 1979) he is on the cusp of two truly important moves. He has visiting New York mobsters coming in to possibly give him financing that will allow him to buy up enough (decrepit) London dockyard land and influence enough votes to have London host the 1988 Olympics and build their Olympic town on his land. The American mobsters get their dirty cash laundered, Harold has a legitimate source of income from the land deals, the city gets a boost of revenue, and all sorts of politicians and policemen get their palms greased. Best of all, nobody gets killed because it's all mostly legal. That's better than win-win, it's win-win-win-win-win. There's just one problem. On the Good Friday that the American mobsters come to visit, Harold's men start to die in spectacular ways. His mother's driver is killed by a car bomb, his casino has a bomb in it, two of his best men are found dead; as the day goes on, the bodies and explosions keep piling up. Who would dare, after a decade of peace, take on the proverbial King Kong of London's criminal underground? Who could even think of it? Harold has long since killed his rivals. Whoever it is, Harold has no problem going to his most savage lengths to find the guilty party. But what does he do when it is clear that savagery isn't enough?
|It's hard to act like a tough thug when you're hanging by a meat hook.|
While you might not know the names of the actors in this film, they are all pretty recognizable British actors. Paul Freeman (Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark) has a small, but pivotal, role in the beginning of the movie. P.H. Moriarty and Alan Ford (the villains from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, respectively) play some of Harold's thugs; Moriarty was pretty impressive as the knife-loving Razors. Dexter Fletcher (another Lock, Stock alum) makes an early appearance as an ugly child. Paul Barber (The Full Monty) gets his hands nailed to a floor to make him tell the truth. Kevin McNally (Johnny's Depp's drunken buddy in all the Pirates movies) has a bit scene in a bar. Most of these actors had pretty small roles in the film, but most of them have at least one memorable scene. Heck, Pierce Brosnan, in his first film role, had a major supporting role as a very hairy-chested assassin.
|James Bond: the bathhouse years.|
The film belongs to the lead actors, though. Bob Hoskins is terrific as the street-level thug trying to be a gentleman, especially as that gentlemanly facade is slowly stripped away and we get to see just how brutal he is. You don't see a whole lot of physically evocative performances from British films in general, but it was all but unheard of in the late-70s/early-80s; the best British films of the time tended to be epic and theatrically acted. Seeing Hoskins gnashing his teeth together and seething with violence while wearing a fancy suit was a treat. This is a performance that pre-dates --- and, in some ways, overshadows --- James Gandolfini's Sopranos role by over two decades. But what sets this movie apart from other gangster movies, at least in the character department, comes from Helen Mirren's portrayal of Harold's girlfriend. She could have played the typical gangster moll, but (at her insistence, I've heard) her character is smart, sophisticated, and is definitely the brains behind Harold's brawn. Can you tell me the last time you saw a gangster movie where the lead female role was equal in power to the male lead? I can't think of any, but you're welcome to try. This is the youngest I've ever seen Mirren (she was in her mid-thirties at the time), so I was a little surprised to see her as, well...young and pretty. While her part was definitely a supporting role, I thought her calm and collected smarts stole the scenes she was in.
I'm not too familiar with John Mackenzie's body of work as a director, but he obviously did a pretty good job with the actors here. I love that the beginning of the film lays out some problems, but doesn't explain them until much later; this might be confusing at first, but I thought that showing what happened, but not hearing the dialogue in most of the scenes or knowing the context of the actions was an interesting (and ultimately rewarding) choice. I wish I could say the same for some of Mackenzie's other choices. Many scenes go on too long, adding little or nothing to the overall story and the score, while modern at the time, sounds positively archaic now. I liked how he handled the actors and assembled the story, but I have to admit that the movie drags at times.
What sets this movie apart from your typical gangster movie is the problem it poses. The police aren't getting in Harold's way, because he pays them not to. Politicians aren't making a stink about it, because Harold pays them not to. Harold's enemies aren't causing all these problems, because they're all dead. As the enemy is slowly revealed, things start to make sense, especially once the motives for the attacks become apparent. What I really liked about this movie was how it found an enemy that could take on mobsters and plausibly win. The script was handled intelligently and it definitely spoke to some of the reality of 1970s Britain.