Saturday, 5 November 2011

London Boulevard (2010)

William Monahan made a name for himself as a screenwriter with the likes of Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and The Departed (2006), suggesting an expansive intelligence and gifts for conflicted characters and pungent dialogue. But they also reflected a Hollywood player’s over-reliance on predictable dramatic tempos and twists. His debut sees him decamping to Blighty to adapt a novel by Ken Bruen, but he doesn’t leave Hollywood sufficiently far behind. London Boulevard is however to me a more compelling debut for a major scripting talent than, for instance, the dutifully slick Michael Clayton (2007) and The Adjustment  Bureau (2011) were for fellow big-league wordsmiths Tony Gilroy and George Nolfi, partly because Monahan displays a more volatile and eccentric directorial voice. London Boulevard’s title pays overt tribute to Sunset Blvd. (1950) in remixing the theme of a lone stud male accidentally coming into contact with a reclusive movie star, but the real driving force here is Monahan’s affection for the classic British crime flicks, and Mike Hodges in particular, trying to reproduce his distinctive blend of icy, almost art moderne visuals and tough, tangy dramatic byplay. Whilst Monahan again ends up hitting many inevitable notes, he invests the exposition with a toey energy, and keeps the film jerking and twisting like an angry asp, hacking his scene structures into cubist hunks and swathing them in ‘60s rock, energising at least for the film's first half, before it all gets away from him.

Colin Farrell gives another customarily excellent performance as Mitchell, a former stand-over man just out of prison. His first act in getting out proves to be an original sin he can’t ever recover from: he accepts the help of his featherheaded low-life debt collector mate Billy (Ben Chaplin), who works for underground titan Gant (Ray Winstone). Billy stashes Mitchell away in a flat that belongs to a doctor who fell afoul of Gant and had to give up his worldly possessions to him. Mitchell’s intrinsically protective attitude, so potent it’s practically self-destructive, as displayed towards women and old pals, is based in unstated familial traumas and his perpetual worry for his damaged, flighty prostitute sister Briony (Anna Friel). This instinctual quality begins to dictate his future even in his first hours of freedom. Outside a nightclub, he sees off two likely lads about to harass Penny (Ophelia Lovibond), who, impressed by his mettle, recommends him for the job of bodyguard to Charlotte (Keira Knightley), or “Our Char” as she referred to on the tabloid pages that report her crises with vampiric √©lan. An ubiquitous movie star and fashion icon, Charlotte has retreated into her London house in a fit of social phobia, abandoned by her playboy husband and suffering the lingering after-effects of being raped by a producer when shooting a film in Italy, a crime she couldn’t report. Meanwhile Mitchell's old friend and father figure Joe (Alan Williams), now a street vagrant, is soon murdered by a dead-eyed local teen (Jamie Blackley), and Mitchell sets the underworld telegraph tingling to track down the culprit, only to find he’s a football prodigy protected by Gant. To repay Billy’s favours, Mitchell aids in his debt collecting, but when Mitchell gets beaten up by a cohort of Nation of Islam followers on one such job, Gant sees an opportunity to bind Mitchell to his organisation permanently, by executing one of the offending band in front of him. Too bad Billy misidentified a random black teen, but Gant couldn’t care less.

London Boulevard is an interesting failure that declines steadily from an excellent first act to an underwhelming last phase, suggesting a crisis of confidence and focus on Monahan’s part. He carefully weaves a number of potentially gripping motifs, in the clash of high and low life, the surreally disparate yet equally potent versions of fame and fortune exemplified by Gant and Char, as well as the variations of entrapment experienced by the actress and Mitchell. Bridge for the two worlds is Char’s perpetually stoned houseguest and guardian angel Jordan (David Thewlis), who adapts readily when necessity demands from louche intellectual immigrant, reminiscent of a caterpillar in his shaggy shrugging indolence, to assassin by simply by adapting his actor’s creed – “I am what I say I am” – and a call to arms from Mitchell. Monahan populates the vibrant background – perhaps too vibrant – with oddball characters like Sanjeev Bhaskar as Raju, a likeable but repressed doctor who attends to the dying Joe and who falls under Briony’s spell, and Eddie Marsan as the corrupt yet utterly spineless top cop Bailey. Chaplin is very good playing that most interminable of modern gangster movie figures, the hapless and pathetic friend who tries to be a player but drags everyone down. The soundtrack bristles with tracks by the likes of Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds and Electric Banana, borrowing their swagger for initially compelling affectations of mod cool and pop-art-inflected Greek choral commentary, and occasional moments in the film, as when Jordan loans Mitchell one of Char’s vintage Rolls Royces to ride off to gangland warfare in, that do suggest a mischievous sense of humour. 

Mitchell makes for an engaging anti-hero, a man of scruples and humanity who is nonetheless ready and able to use stunning violence to defend his turf, a refusal to bend or retreat or cower that will ultimately destroy everything he sets out to protect. Farrell handles his mixture of confidence in physical confrontations and ever so slight dazedness in the face of paparazzi and the metastasising strangeness of modern life, as well as his simmering sense of protectiveness towards his loved-ones, with sublime confidence. Likewise his scenes with Winstone are riveting for the divergent versions of Alpha Male force they invoke, especially when, after Gant has shot the black hostage, the pair’s mutual fury rises in a squall, bellowing in each other’s faces like dogs arguing territory, confirming, as later dialogue states unnecessarily, that Mitchell is not only not afraid of Gant, but that if he builds up a head of steam he would prove an engine of murderous destruction. Only his lingering morals and human ties keep him from doing so, and Farrell expertly evokes the twinges of those scruples, like fishhooks in his skin, tugging at him as circumstances demand brutal action. One particularly good scene presents the spectacle of Mitchell trying to get his bedevilled and wilfully fuzzy-headed sister to flee town long enough for him to take out Gant without worrying about her: the schism between his concern and her mixture of affection and contempt is a penetrating momentary portrait of dysfunction and solicitude failing to comprehend each-other.

London Boulevard lacks the ruthless deterministic quality of Hodges’ I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead (2004) in portraying a former heavy whose desire to stay straight is eroded by a sense of duty and justice as well as ingrained warrior reflexes. But London Boulevard constantly suggests larger and stranger things on its mind. In presenting a collision of the underworld’s capacity for brute and showy force meeting the equally showy and perhaps equally corrosive perversions of show business, it threatens to careen deep into irrational romanticism and meta-theatre ironies, a la Performance (1970), another apparent influence, or perhaps a gaudy pop-art eruption along the lines of Seijun Suzuki. But Monahan proves unequal to that challenge. Instead, he finally takes refuge in modern gangster movie standbys, from Gant’s scarily discursive conversational gambits, to the last-minute twist, evoking the likes of Layer Cake (2004) and The Departed where a near-forgotten supporting character returns to ice the anti-hero right at the point of victory. The central romance between Mitchell and Char never seems as vital or sexily transgressive as it should be. Char’s most substantial moment comes in meditating on the essential uses of actresses in mainstream films, in a wry, acutely accurate scene: it would ring truer if Char didn’t end up so peripheral to the main story, and therefore exactly the sort of feminine sounding board Monahan’s making fun of. Knightley’s performance is aptly fidgety and brittle, the familiar planes of her face drawn taut in nervous exhaustion and eyes pools of suggested internal damage just as descriptive as the Francis Bacon paintings on her walls. Whilst Char never quite seems to find her place in the movie, nonetheless Monahan seems to be working from some reservoir of experience in his portrait of her and the world she represents, with its supposedly classy yet often sleazy and abusive vicissitudes. In another telling vignette, Char goes shopping, attempting to retain anonymity in a boutique where her physiognomy is affixed throughout, and her self-consciousness is crucifying. Whereas Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010) depicted a movie star in crisis fleeing the Chateau Marmont, here it’s the last refuge for Char, a mordant reversal in a portrait of fame as a cage where not only is normality out of reach, but so is a common right to justice.

Monahan’s dialogue also often retains a knowing zing, as when Jordan explains to Mitchell, whose incarceration means that he’s not up to speed on the pop cultural moment, that, referring to Charlotte’s acting career, “If it wasn’t for Monica Bellucci, she’d be the most-raped woman in European cinema,” a line that hits several targets at once. Monahan clearly tries to channel his better models and former collaborators in creating his cinematic surfaces, including an early Scorsese shout-out as Mitchell’s first heroic return to an underworld night spot is scored to the Stones a la De Niro’s Mean Streets entrance, substituting “Stray Cat Blues” for “Jumping Jack Flash”. But finally Monahan’s lack of experience begins to show as the film collapses under its own weight, and his attempts to leave the edges rough give way to a rushed, non-sequitir fragmentation. The last half-hour, like The Departed, dissolves into a rather bewildering and desultory corpse pile-up, and whilst the stranger, better ideas continue to bob up, like Jordan travelling so deeply within his role he finally becomes a desperado himself, they fail to cohere with moral weight or tragi-comic pep. Chris Menges’ strong cinematography, with its crisp textures and glassy colours, does a lot of the work in maintaining a semblance of cohesion. The shame of London Boulevard is that it constantly suggests the better movie it might have been with more courage and originality.


Stephen Gallagher said...

Haven't seen this one yet but your plot summary suggests three or four story approaches fighting it out with none of them winning, just making for an unholy scramble at the end.

A pity, because if Monahan had been able to fix on a strong through-line the Colin Farrell character sounds like an interesting one around which to build a movie. But maybe we've already been there in Neil Jordan's MONA LISA.

Roderick Heath said...

Can't argue with any of that, Stephen, and whilst I didn't think of the Mona Lisa likeness, it smacks me in the face now. Truth be told, it desperately needed to tie together the sense of danger, both physical and emotional, with the same skill and intricacy as the Jordan film, but the plot strands just never properly connect for that to happen, never mind that it doesn't build that film's sense of warped passion. Farrell just reacts, when Winstone drops hints of threatening Knightley, with regulation rage. But yes, Farrell's character is interesting, because, as his memorable if perhaps over-literalising speech to Winstone goes, he doesn't want to be a gangster, but if he's forced to be one he'll commit to the role with unswerving finality, and that's a disparity I'd've loved to see explored with more depth. But Monahan can't finally decide just which of the three or four movies he's making is the best. I haven't read Bruen's novel so I don't know how many of the problems come from the source material.