D.W. Griffith allegedly said that the only necessary ingredients to make a movie were a girl and a gun. "London Boulevard," the directorial debut of "The Departed" screenwriter William Monohan, has two girls, several guns, a lot of angry gangsters and a screenplay sly enough to deliver them with stylistic verve. While the formula fails to build on its potential, the familiar ingredients contain their usual pizzazz. As exercises in pulp go, this one yields a solid workout.
A typically intense Colin Farrell plays Mitchel, a London thug recently released from prison and contemplating on his next move. Crashing with his equally alienated pal Billy (Ben Chaplin), Mitchel quickly returns to his habit of taking on odd criminal gigs in exchange for free shelter. The problem is the situation isn't so free, and Mitchel eventually finds himself facing the wrath of a brutish mob boss (Ray Winstone), whom Billy owes a favor.
Meanwhile, Mitchel embarks on a separate task to avenge the murder of his old friend and accepts another random assignment as the security guard for a reclusive movie star (Keira Knightley). The passion between them grows just as danger catches up with Mitchel, whose third task beyond work and romance involves caretaking duties for his hedonistic younger sister (Anna Friel).
Loosely adapted from Ken Bruen's novel, "London Boulevard" references "Sunset Boulevard" in title alone; the ruminations on fame, afflicting Knightley's recently divorced character while she shields herself from the harsh scrutiny of paparazzi surrounding her home, only occasionally surface. Monahan's story can't incorporate all of his plot threads, instead veering from one encounter to the next and managing to converge when Mitchel launches on a warpath against his domineering underworld nemesis.
A cheery maniac presumably on loan from a Guy Ritchie movie, Winstone underwhelms as the gruff crime lord whose mean side always comes with a smirk. Likewise, Knightley has little to offer her one-note role beyond a sunken expression, putting the emphasis on her male savior. Fortunately, he's game: Farrell does a serviceable job as the usual badass with a heart of gold. He means well for the people who mean him the same, but others don't fare so well. Once he unleashes that darker half, "London Boulevard" fires on all cylinders, aided by Sergio Pizzorno's vibrant rock soundtrack.
With its gritty fixations and morbid sense of humor, "London Boulevard" occasionally feels like a tamer take on the routine that propelled "The Departed" to great acclaim, but Farrell's role provides reason enough to consider another predecessor: Martin McDonagh's amusingly coarse hitman comedy "In Bruges," where the actor found his match in fellow killer Brendan Gleeson. In "London Boulevard," David Thewlis steals the show as Knightley's kooky righthand man, a pot-smoking ex-actor with an even harsher bite than Mitchel -- a trait made especially funny since he doesn't look the part.
It's easy to fixate on these details because "London Boulevard" offers very little beyond them. Monahan relishes the props of the genre but applies them in broad and superficial strokes. With its crushingly abrupt and tragic finale, "London Boulevard" finally hits on a visual poetry that the rest of the movie, with its relentlessly sleek exterior, never bothers to attempt. It was clear before "London Boulevard" that Monohan had a strong affinity for brutal crime sagas; his directorial debut shows he's capable of tapping into it without bothering to shake things up.
criticWIRE grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Released last year in the UK, "London Boulevard" opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles. The stars and subject matter should help propel it to strong numbers on VOD.