Sony // 2011 // 103 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // February 21st, 2012
Not every criminal wants to be one.
Over the past few years, William Monahan has established himself as one of Hollywood's A-list screenwriters by doing work for such high-profile directors as Ridley Scott (Kingdom of Heaven, Body of Lies), Martin Campbell (Edge of Darkness) and Martin Scorsese (The Departed). Now, Monahan has decided to take everything he's learned from those seasoned pros and try his hand in the director's chair with the British gangster flick London Boulevard. The writer/director's inspirations become clear pretty quickly: the soundtrack reflects Scorsese's musical instincts by tossing in cuts from The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, the supporting characters feel very Guy Ritchie-esque in their profane loopiness and the film's self-referential playfulness is distinctly reminiscent of Shane Black's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. While the movie lacks the depth of Scorsese, the whiz-bang ingenuity of Ritchie or the gut-busting humor of Black, it's not entirely without merit.
The plot feels cobbled together from a billion crime movies: Mitchel (Colin Farrell, In Bruges) has just been released from prison. Quite a few of his old friends are keen to pull him back into the world of organized crime, but Mitchel is having none of it. He's done with that life. Through a series of coincidences, he ends up landing an unusual job: serving as both a bodyguard and handyman for famously reclusive movie star Charlotte (Keira Knightley, The Duchess). Things seem to be looking up for a while, but eventually Mitchel finds himself indebted to the notorious gangster Gant (Ray Winstone, Sexy Beast). Before long, the poor guy finds himself sucked back into a life of violence. Is there anything Mitchel can do to break the cycle and find peace?
The central plot isn't really anything to write home about, but it functions well enough as a springboard for the many compelling things Monahan throws at us over the course of London Boulevard's 103-minute running time. Among its virtues:
A superbly scuzzy supporting performance courtesy of David Thewlis, who plays a man who, "was an actor, then was on methadone, then was a producer," and now finds himself working as Charlotte's manager. Thewlis gets most of the film's best lines: "It's a nice day, if you like that sort of thing," he says while frowning at the sunlight. His description of Knightley's character is also kinda priceless: "If it wasn't for Monica Belluci, she'd be the most-raped woman in European cinema."
A genuinely affecting romance of sorts that builds between Mitchel and Charlotte. Knightley accentuates Charlotte's pain and deep-rooted sadness quite effectively, and it plays nicely against Farrell's weary sincerity.
That aforementioned soundtrack, which keeps popping killer classics and an enjoyably tuneful score by Sergio Pizzorno.
Monahan's gift for compelling dialogue, which maintains our interest even during the film's weaker spots.
An impressively subdued and surprisingly stately performance from Ray Winstone, who plays a character whose reputation is so well-established that he doesn't need to bark in order to establish his authority.
However, while any individual scene of London Boulevard might be enjoyed for these and other reasons, Monahan fails to assemble his well-constructed pieces into a well-constructed whole. There's very little sense of forward momentum, so the large developments feel more like awkward shifts than exciting progressions. While each subplot is populated with impressively detailed characters, there's simply not enough time to give some of them the attention they need. I really could have used more of the Mitchel/Charlotte relationship, because what's there is rich enough to fuel a film on its own. Likewise, the relationship between Mitchel and his alcoholic sister (an unhinged Anna Friel, Pushing Daisies) has some great moments, but isn't given the amount of screen time it needs to make a real impact. There are also too many moments in which it feels like Monahan is simply aping the work of other noted directors rather than really establishing his own vision. It's clear that the man has talent, but that talent needs to be refined a bit before we're going to get a really satisfying film from him (I understand he's working on an adaptation of Becket, which certainly sounds like an intriguing change-of-pace).
The DVD transfer is adequate, offering respectable detail and acceptably deep blacks. Moments that look a little washed out are most likely due to directorial choices. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is perfectly adequate as well, though I wish some of the musical cues ended less abruptly. Extras are limited to a standard making-of featurette.
I can't recommend London Boulevard to the average viewer, but I certainly don't regret watching it. There are a lot of good things here; high-quality ingredients in need of a more experienced chef. Here's hoping Monahan the director can reach the level of Monahan the writer.
Eh, you know.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 103 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R