Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Rialto releases the film on Friday, March 15.
It’s easy enough to understand why Idris Elba would choose to make “Yardie” for his directorial debut. For one thing, it’s the kind of story that seems pretty hard to mess up: Adapted from Victor Headley’s 1992 novel of the same name, “Yardie” is a nuts-and-bolts revenge saga about a young Jamaican kid who survives the gang warfare in his home country, grows up to be a low-level hood, and then traffics a brick of coke to London with the ulterior motive of finding the man who killed his brother. Borrowing heavily from the likes of “City of God,” “Goodfellas,” and “Layer Cake,” it’s a premise so familiar that even a first-time filmmaker should be able to wrangle it into decent shape.
And yet, this flat and formulaic crime yarn has all sorts of flaws: Woefully under-developed characters, a stilted pace, and dull bursts of violence being just a few. For some audiences, however, the largest hurdle might be that the dialogue can be as unintelligible as the storytelling. The issue of subtitling English dialects is a thorny one — there’s a fine line between clarity and condescension — but this critic must shamefully admit that his untrained ears had a very difficult time of parsing the film’s Jamaican accents at the speed that “Yardie” requires (note: subtitles were added to the film for its subsequent festival dates). Of course, there’s always the chance that a better understanding of Brock Norman Brock’s screenplay might only reinforce how generic this adaptation really is.
Fortunately, Elba’s on-screen success provides him plenty of room for failure, and “Yardie” does offer reasons to believe (and even hope) that he might take another seat in the director’s chair. Chief among them is the fact that his film has a vivid sense of place. Taking us back to 1973, Elba instantly creates a vibrant and transportive vision of Jamaica. From the leafy green hills where 10-year-old Dennis (Antwayne Eccleston) lives with his peacenik older brother, Jerry Dread (Everaldo Creary), to the bloody streets of Kingston where little girls are being gunned down in the crossfire of a drug-fueled gang rivalry, “Yardie” evocatively paints the island nation as a beautiful paradise that its young protagonist needs to leave as soon as possible.
Elba, an amateur DJ in whatever spare time he has left, also does a nice job of using “Yardie” to foreground the rich history of Jamaican music, both its story and its soundtrack celebrating the anti-violence of the island’s reggae vibes (a sarcastic reference to Bob Marley makes for the funniest moment in a film that’s as light on laughs as it is heavy on voiceover). The rhythm is there when Jerry Dread tries to bring the city together with an impromptu DJ set that ends in his death, and it follows Dennis to London 10 years later, when his murder trip to Old Blighty is sidetracked by a stint as the emcee of a “soundclash” crew called High Noon.
Played as an adult by Aml Ameen (whose blank performance is often as sleepy as his narration), Dennis only becomes even less interesting once he arrives on the far side of the Atlantic and immediately angers a white Jamaican kingpin (Stephen Graham, frothing at the mouth). Our hero is supposedly torn between the path of the righteous and the path of the damned, but he mostly seems hellbent on speeding down the path of the stupid. Bumbling around the ugliest corners of the London underground with nothing more than some drugs and a death wish, Dennis manages to piss off some very bad men on both sides of the ocean, immediately leading them right to the estranged wife (Shantol Jackson) and daughter he’s trying to keep safe.
It’s never the least bit clear why Dennis is so determined to avenge his brother (it’s not exactly the kind of thing that Jerry Dread would endorse), or why we should be emotionally invested in a guy who would rather murder a stranger than make amends with his family. It’s never clear what D is really doing with High Noon, or why — in a film where each and every one of the supporting characters is more compelling than the hero — we don’t get to spend more time with the lovable likes of DJ Sticks (Calvin Demba), a doofus mercenary who’s only working for the mafia to pay for sound equipment. Most of all, it’s never clear why Elba doesn’t just come out from behind the camera and fix things himself, as his movie star charisma is probably the only thing that could have given this scattershot drama a real center of gravity.
As it stands, “Yardie” seldom amounts to anything more than a collection of vaguely related scenes, simultaneously both too muddled and too straightforward to have any resonance beyond the moment at hand. There’s a great movie to be made about the Jamaican community in London and the unique particulars of that immigrant experience, but this isn’t it. Elba’s got the right idea, now he just needs to find the rhythm.
“Yardie” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.