London Boulevard was roundly trashed by critics when it opened in the UK late last year, with many picking apart the inauthentic nature of a British gangster movie directed by an American (William Monahan, who won a Screenplay Oscar for his work on The Departed) and starring an Irishman (Colin Farrell).
I recall a similar chilly-cool reception for Martin McDonough’s In Bruges (which also starred Farrell) when it initially bowed in the UK; that film turned out to be one of my favorites from the past decade.
And here we are again: London Boulevard is a striking, pulpy pop-culture amalgamation of British gangster movie clichés, and I loved every minute of it. The British gangster film had been popularized by 80s classics like John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday and Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, more recently satirized by films like Sexy Beast and In Bruges, and parodied by Snatch and other Guy Ritchie-inspired fare.
In London Boulevard, Monahan turns the genre on its head, Tarantino-style: it’s a self-aware but entirely loving embrace of genre conventions that fearlessly throws itself into the fire.
Mitchell (Farrell) has just been released from prison; his first stop on the way back is a self storage lot, where he picks up a wad of cash, a switchblade, and a nostalgic photograph.
A host of lowlifes congregate at a bar to welcome Mitch back to society, and while he doesn’t want to go back to jail, he’s quickly flung back into his hoodlum ways; he decks a man misusing his sister Briony (Anna Friel), and accepts a place to stay and “work” from incompetent friend Billy (Ben Chaplin), knowing full well what may come out of it.
But Mitch meets a girl (Ophelia Lovibond) who offers him a ray of hope at getting out of this existence; she sends him to a friend who may have legitimate work for him.
Her friend is Charlotte (Keira Knightley), a famous model and actress whose face adorns billboards and magazines around London; she’s also become a Howard Hughes-like recluse who lives with a pothead actor Jordan (David Thewlis) and has paparazzi permanently staked outside her mansion. She could use the kind of help a tough like Mitch can provide.
There’s also a host of colorful supporting characters and subplots, including: the shit-eating DI Bailey (Eddie Marsan), who bleeds Mitch for cash; father-figure vagrant Joe (Alan Williams), who is attacked by hoodie thugs and hospitalized; a kind doctor (Sanjeev Bhaskar) who has a thing for Mitch’s sister; and an array of disreputable gangster types.
The most powerful of them all is the stark-raving mad Gant (Ray Winstone), who wants to recruit Mitch into his fold and won’t take ‘no’ for an answer.
London Boulevard doesn’t work in conventional ways; there’s too much story here and too little time (approx. 100 minutes) to present it all as a cohesive or tightly-crafted piece.
Instead, writer/director Monahan frames the material (based on the novel by the same name by Ken Bruen) as a series of vignettes, where we often wonder about, but don’t get to see, what happens in-between some of the key scenes. The director sacrifices some suspense and story tension this way, but when the individual vignettes work as well as they do here, I’m not complaining.
Part of that is due to the manic pop nature of the film: Monahan starts with the British ganster film and throws everything from neo-noir (Chris Menges’ cinematography) to Spaghetti Western (the titles) and irreverent humor (Thewlis’ character) into the mix.
There’s also the underlying Sunset Boulevard (reclusive actress) comparison referenced by the title, though it’s less pronounced than one might imagine. Like a Tarantino movie, part of the fun of watching London Boulevard is getting that rush of all the hundreds of films that have directly informed it.
Farrell and Knightley are fine as the leads, but the rest of the cast is even better: Marsan, Chaplin, Thewlis, and other colorful faces provide memorable support. Best of all is Winstone, truly frightening as Gant – he commands the screen whenever he’s around, and lingers in memory when he isn’t; his performance recalls Ben Kingsley’s in Sexy Beast.
The soundtrack is magnificent – it makes the film. A twangy, Morricone-influenced original score by Sergio Pizzorno heightens the Spaghetti Western vibe. Additionally, an extremely well-chosen array of 60s hits adds to the delusional pop culture atmosphere, and includes work by Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, and The Yardbirds, whose Heart Full of Soul serves as London Boulevard’s anthem.