Thursday, May 3, 2012

London Boulevard

Let's see what we have here.  London Boulevard is the directorial debut of William Monahan, Academy Award-winning screenwriter of The Departed.  That sounds good.  Of course, he also wrote Edge of Darkness, which included radioactive children, which is less good.  On the other hand, Colin Farrell is in it, and I've really enjoyed him in the last few things I've seen him in (Fright Night and In Bruges), which almost completely makes up for how awful he was at the beginning of his career.  The supporting cast includes the always reliable Ray Winstone, the considerably less consistent David Thewlis, and the adorable Anna Friel.  Keira Knightley plays Farrell's romantic interest, too; while I'm not a big fan, Knightley isn't a bad actress --- she just seems to act in movies I don't want to watch.  When you add all that up, London Boulevard sounds like a pretty solid movie, if not a good one.  And yet, it took a year after its European release for the film to have a limited theatrical run in America.  Is this a misunderstood diamond in the rough, or is this (in the parlance of the UK) just some shite that should have gone direct to DVD? 

After being released from prison, Mitchell (Colin Farrell) is immediately picked up and reintroduced to the shady criminals that got him in trouble in the first place.  Mitchell didn't rat anybody out --- in fact, he's a bit of a legend for being a bad-ass --- so he's not going to get snuffed, but he's tired of that life and wants to move on.  Somehow, Mitchell manages to get a job as a bodyguard for reclusive actress/British tabloid fodder, Charlotte (Keira Knightley).  Charlotte has developed a bit of an anxiety disorder thanks to the constant badgering she has received from the paparazzi; I would say she is paranoid, but they really are out to get her, since the worse she gets, the better their headlines.
She doesn't seem overexposed at all
Taking care of Charlotte is surprisingly rewarding for Mitchell.  Aside from developing friendships that don't revolve around secrecy and being paid --- hold on...okay, his new gig isn't that different from his days as a thug.  Whatever.  Mitchell and Charlotte fall in love, the end.  Or not.  You see, ever since Mitchell got spung from the pokey, local crime boss Rob Gant (Ray Winstone) has been pestering Mitchell to flex some of that infamous bad-assery on his behalf.  Mitchell has refused politely and less politely, but Gant isn't the sort who takes "no" for an answer.  So who will come out on top in the end, gangster Mitchell or reformed Mitchell?

None of the acting in London Boulevard was too bad, but the leads weren't especially impressive.  Colin Farrell did about as much with the role as the script would allow, but the story relies heavily on him being totally bad-ass, and we don't see a whole lot of that.  Keira Knightley was fine as the strung-out celebrity, but her role was surprisingly small, given the initial movie trailer.
Rumor is Keira gained 1.5 lbs to play this role; that rumor may be exaggerated
While I didn't care for the individual performances by Farrell or Knightley, they did show some chemistry together, mostly due to Farrell being understated.  Luckily, the lack of overwhelming charm and charisma from the two headlining stars is more than made up by two stellar supporting performances.  David Thewlis played a habitually stoned manager/hanger-on of Charlotte, and he was great.  What I liked about him was how well he played up the nonchalance of a habitual drug user, without being over-the-top at all. 
This is easily the best work I've seen from Thewlis, although considering his non-Harry Potter career, that's not saying much.  Ray Winstone is great at playing tough guys, and this role was right in his wheelhouse (sorry, I've been playing a lot of MLB12: The Show).  Loud, violent, and scary: that's all you need to know about his performance here.  There are a lot of recognizable faces in the rest of the cast, but the only one who stood out was Ben Chaplin as a sniveling and stupid crook; it wasn't a great part, but Chaplin was suitably unsympathetic.  Stephen Graham and Eddie Marsan were both underutilized in small parts.  Anna Friel was almost completely unnecessary in what could have been a fun bit part, but just felt out of place in London Boulevard.

As William Monahan's first directorial feature, London Boulevard does a decent amount of things right.  The best scenes in the movie --- basically any time Farrell shares the screen with Thewlis or Winstone --- are snappy, well-edited and pretty awesome.  The violence is also fairly raw and abrasive (in a good way).
"I'm an artist at my chosen craft"
And yet, London Boulevard is a huge mess.  The first thing you'll notice is the variety and thickness of the British accents in the film; I enjoy the Brits, but even I had a hard time figuring out what was being said at times.  Worse, Monahan's adapted screenplay is all over the place.  The trailer makes this movie look pretty promising.  A tough guy trying to get out of the criminal life and protect his new life with the woman he loves.  Nothing wrong with that, at the very least, and it has the potential for greatness.  But here's the thing: this movie really isn't about that.  It's more of an odyssey for Mitchell as he adjusts to non-criminal life.  The subplot featuring his sister was absolutely useless.  The extended subplot featuring Mitchell's homeless buddy would have been useless, if not for the cheap shot it provides at the end of the film.  But what is worse, a useless subplot, or a seemingly unimportant part of the movie coming back at the very, very end and suddenly being improbably important?  And then there is the bit about the crooked parole officer, and the technical owner of a certain house...there's just a lot going on, but not in a fast-paced crime caper kind of way.  Chunks of this movie work, but they don't actually connect to each other in a narrative or thematic fashion.

That disconnect is really at the core of what keeps London Boulevard from working.  There are some good bits (the familiar overarching plot, the snappy banter in key scenes), but the pacing of the film as a whole is awful.  The story gets sidetracked by subplots with little to no payoff, Mitchell is attached to certain characters for reasons the viewer never really understands, and the core of the story --- Mitchell and Charlotte falling in love --- is rushed and left mostly unexplored and unexplained.
That's enough of that!
How do you screw up a British gangster movie with so much talent in the film?  By not focusing on the "gangster" part and not letting the talent interact with each other, I suppose.  I was already sorely disappointed in the film when it suddenly sealed the deal and earned my ire. 
I'd be pissed, too, if I starred in this
SPOILER ALERT: Mitch has just gone out of his way to keep himself and Charlotte safe, and he's leaving her house to get on a plane and meet up with her.  And then he gets the shit stabbed out of him.  Not by any of the famous actors in the cast, or even someone with a speaking part up to this point, but by a kid.  You see, Mitch gave his homeless buddy a knife to protect himself, the homeless guy gets beaten to death, and word on the street is that a kid did the deed; Mitch tracked the kid down and was seconds away from murdering him, but he stopped, presumably because he made a choice to change.  And then that stupid kid stabs him to death with his own knife, out of nowhere.  That...that is just awful.  It may not be the worst ending I've seen, but it is, at the very least, complete bullshit.  If the movie had been good up to that point, I would have been seriously upset, so at least London Boulevard made sure you had lost interest before doing something so stupid. 
For the record, that is one star each for David Thewlis and Ray Winstone.  The rest of this movie can curl up and die, for all I care.

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