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The Long Good Friday Review

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by Chris McEneany Aug 29, 2010

    The Long Good Friday Review

    “Nothin' unusual, he says! Eric's been blown to smithereens! Colin's been carved up. I've got a bomb in my casino and you say nothin' unusual!”

    The 80's have just begun. Yuppie culture is about to be born. The SAS were on the way to storming the Iranian Embassy, and the Falkland Islands would be won back into our hands with an incredibly patriotic uppercut of pure glory, and even though Maggie Thatcher is in power and things are about to turn very sour, there is an air of optimism and a sense of progression. Things are looking up … if you've got the bottle to go after what you want, that is.

    And “bottle” is one thing that London mob-lord, Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins), has got more than his fair share of. This current climate of prosperity and revitalisation has not gone unnoticed by the London Underworld and, ever the forward-thinker with his eye on the bigger picture, Harold sees a golden opportunity to get a large piece of the action and go legit. Big time. Well … semi-legit, shall we say? He wants to turn the run-down London Docklands into a vast leisure complex, a venture that will set him up for life and provide him with an air of respectability that even the Royals would recognise. But he will need some backing from other than the usual assembly-line of bent coppers and corrupt politicians to see his dream come true. He will need all of his go-getting savvy, the rock-steady support of his gorgeous and shrewd moll, Victoria (Helen Mirren), and his army of foot-soldiers, and the redoubtable financial reinforcement of some powerful American “family friends”. Harold Shand, a boy from Putney who got lucky and is living it large, is about to move out of his not inconsiderable pond and make a splash in the big sea. He'll have to be careful, though. Even an ever-biting barracuda like himself has to watch out when the sharks come cruising.

    “I'll have his carcass dripping blood by midnight!”

    Set over the course of one exceptionally long and deadly Good Friday, John Mackenzie's excellent Brit-thiller charts Harold's doomed attempts to impress two leading lights from the American “investors” - Charlie (a staunch, no BS performance from Eddie Constantine) and Tony (Stephen Davis) – as literally all hell breaks loose around him. A series of horrific but inexplicable events start the day. Paul (Raiders Of The Lost Ark) Freeman, one of Harold's most trusted inner-circle, gets a little greedy during a standard deal in Northern Ireland and ends up getting his driver and an innocent youth murdered on account of it, and himself knifed to death once he comes home. Back on his own turf, Harold's closest friend, Jeff (Casualty's Derek Thompson) is meeting one of the gang's best and most beneficial contacts, Councillor Harris (Bryan Marshall from Hammer's Quatermass And The Pit and the TV series Warship) when a young widow approaches him and spits in his face for no apparent reason. A car bomb rips apart Harold's Rolls Royce, killing the driver and just missing his mother as they attend church. Another bomb is found in his Mayfair casino before it goes off. Someone, or some rival organisation is sending out a clear message to Harold that his time is up. Under any other circumstances, this situation would be bad, though not something that he couldn't easily deal with. But now, with the Yanks in town to assess his power-base and control over things, these developments are his worst nightmare. Struggling to keep a lid on such disturbing news whilst ruthlessly trying to root out those responsible, Harold's valiant attempts to broker this all-important deal come under threat from seemingly all quarters. Another bomb goes off, blowing his favourite pub to bits just as he and his guests are pulling up outside it. With only the smooth-talking and charming Victoria able to keep the Americans from scuttling back to the States (“It's this natural gas we have ...” he informs them), Harold is forced to bring out the big guns and violently consolidate his patch. He is certain that can salvage this deal yet, and now Harold Shand is very angry. But can he work out who is behind this fiendish vendetta against him and stop them before it is too late?

    It's going to be a very long Good Friday, indeed.

    Barrie Keefe's scorching and quick-witted screenplay for Handmade Films' production courted such controversy and indignant disapproval from certain circles that the film was twelve months overdue for its theatrical release. It was certainly not favourable to imbue the IRA, then at height of their intimidatory might and a shadowy spectre that looms large over the film, with the kind of unstoppable and unbeatable power that not even organised criminals, already acting beyond the law, could surmount. What chance did the British Army and any sort of Peace Process stand if our own bad boys couldn't compete with them, it seemed to be saying. Plus, the film made it clear that anyone who wanted to fully embrace the Thatcherite doctrine so dominant at the time would have be prepared to be cut-throat, violently ambitious and morally bankrupt. In short, you had to be a thug if you wanted to succeed. Dressing up a political and social accusation as a crime thriller wasn't, however, what Keefe and director John Mackenzie were trying to do. Sure they wanted to capture the boom-time ethos and expose it for the sham it really was, but they were doing it to help anchor their story in the contemporary real world, as cruel and as cutting as that culture would inevitably turn out to be, both on-camera and off. Following on from the bleak and nihilistic outlook that took a proper hold of the Anglo wing of the genre with Get Carter, Good Friday takes the “cool” out of the lifestyle and replaces it with obsessive drive and daily danger. Harold's boys – his “Corporation” - are not out on some jolly Italian Job and nor would they be seen dead larking about on Lavender Hill. They are all brutes and bully-boys who have fought and clawed their up from the gutters and the tenements and proved their worth to the biggest and toughest nut (Harold) that the streets could produce, passing their selection process in blood. The Shand Manor is the pitch to play on and Harold's team are top of the league. Keefe and Mackenzie do not treat their characters as loveable rogues. They don't cut any corners and they don't sugar the pill. But they do take the time to portray them as human and three-dimensional. And, as such, these geezers ain't all bad. They're businessmen now … but that doesn't mean they don't enjoy it when they can use their fists or a shooter when the situation calls for it. “Right, arm up and get goin'. And lads,” warns Harold as he unleashes them on a hunt, “let's try to be discrete, eh?” although there is a dark grin trying to manifest itself and a definite gleam in his eye.

    “Bombs. This is Special Branch, Harold, it isn't normal villainy.”

    “It's indecently abnormal … that was meant for me!”

    Rife with religious symbolism and heavily Shakespearean, The Long Good Friday is a chilling and disturbing glimpse into the destruction of a man and a dream, the uncompromising and authentic implosion of the Citizen Kane mythos. Corruption and falsehoods spar continuously with honour and friendships. The theme of suspicion is one thing, but its travelling companion is one of erosion and extinction. Harold's empire is being torn down, piece by piece as the minutes tick by, his tenure as kingpin slowly ebbing away. He finds betrayal closer to home than he ever expected and its effect upon him is deeply traumatic and savagely violent – Harold, the man, is being disassembled too. But alongside this inescapable, destiny-steered trajectory, there is the defiant, gutsy and indefatigable British steel that stands opposed to it. Harold is a gangster, we know, but there is righteous element of historical pride at stake here too, which makes him something of a noble hero. To make a glorious parallel – and having Bob Hoskins in the role only makes this all the more apparent – Shand's last stand is like the redcoats being massacred at the Battle of Isandlwhana by the Zulus, the day before our triumphant defence of the mission station at Rorke's Drift. Utterly surrounded and with no chance of escape or rescue, the soldiers stood back to back and fought on, even with their bullet-less rifles were taken from them, they fought on with their penknives and their bare hands … never giving in. Historical fact confirmed by their considerably impressed Zulu victors, folks. Bob Hoskins played a tough-as-nails Colour Sergeant in the great film adaptation, Zulu Dawn, only a couple of years before Good Friday, making a massively similar impact to his cut-off, isolated and surrounded racketeer – even sticking the nut on a Zulu warrior in the sort of pit-bull rage that Harold will come to epitomise when the gloves finally come off.

    “No-one's heard nothing? That just ain't natural. It's like one of them silent, deadly farts. No clue, and then pow!, you go cross-eyed.”

    You will recognise all the faces here. Of course we know Thompson and Freeman. But very famously, we have a young Pierce Brosnan as a smiling assassin, Kevin McNally as an unfortunate Irish pub pick-up, and the great P.H. Moriarty as Harold's shock-tactic henchman Razors. The distinctive Moriarty, replete here with enough scars to earn him the moniker of the Human Spirograph, was doing the rounds in a variety of genres around this time, a hired gun in Outland, a big game hunter in Jaws 3D, and a raft of appearances in TV crime shows such as The Professionals, Strangers and The Gentle Touch. He would, of course, develop this Brit gangster persona even more as Hatchet Harry in Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels. Comedy regular Paul Barber even gets to flash his bits (way before The Full Monty) in a nasty scene in which his drug-dealing Scouser-cum-snitch, Erroll, discovers how Razors got his proper nickname. And if you look you'll find another Lock, Stock star in here too, if you cast your eyes a bit lower to the ground – a very young Dexter Fletcher as an up-and-coming villain still toiling at his street-urchin apprenticeship. And virtually everybody else, including Karl Howman and the ubiquitous Alan Ford, has served time as a crook, a con, a snout or a hitman in the likes of The Sweeney or Minder. This familiarity makes the film something of a rogues gallery, but it also serves to convince us that this mob really exists. Even Eastender Gillian Tayleforth crops up as the girl who finds her feller in a very uncomfortable spot during one of the film's more shocking sequences.

    “What I'm looking for is someone who can contribute to what England has given to the world - culture, sophistication, genius. A little bit more than an 'ot dog, know what I mean?”

    Harold finally puts the cowardly Yanks in their place.

    But there is no denying that it is Hoskins who is the Guv'nor. It just wouldn't matter how good any of these other much more experienced Thespians were, they couldn't hold a candle to the powerhouse performance that the bull-headed and impetuous little dynamo put in. It is hard to believe that Hoskins, by the time he had made Good Friday, really hadn't much of anything else under his belt – that gruff turn in Zulu Dawn, various TV drama appearances and, of all things, a stint helping grownups to read in the educational programme, On The Move (who remembers that, then?) and that was about it – but you wouldn't have thought it given the astonishing range of character-skills that he is able to incorporate into our anti-hero. The arrogance and gutter-grown smarm, you expect. Trying the impress the Yanks, he is buttery-smooth, but unable to keep a lid fully on the pride and the ego that is bubbling away beneath the surface. They are big time, he knows that, but he also believes in himself and knows damn well that he belongs at a lofty station in their hierarchy. He's better than them – he's British. When things begin to wrong, he is surprised and annoyed but he maintains that grubby cool because he is Harold Shand and no-one is going to get away with messing about with him for long. But when the hits come closer and closer and he is no nearer to eliminating this unseen foe, the cracks appear and the anger is allowed to become infiltrated by fear – the very emotion that he thought he had eradicated so, so long ago. Hoskins is a master at the old verbals. His eyes bulge, his face reddens, his exasperation totally convinces … but even if he is lost for words for a second or two, you can bet that he'll have the last laugh with a withering put-down or a caustic sarcasm. When one gobby rival enquires whether he has a shooter lodged against his spine, Harold smugly retorts with “Don't be silly, Billy, do you think I'd come hunting for you with just my fingers?” Hoskins is also able to collapse that Mount Vesuvius rage back in on itself with alarmingly sympathetic ease, such as during the scene when he is about to take his frustrations out on Victoria, and he suddenly realises what the situation is doing to him and you see his heart breaking. His style is remarkably confident, yet totally “from the gut”.

    “One of my closest friends is lyin' out there in the freezer. And believe me, all of you, nobody goes home until I find out who done it. And why.”

    Just as Harold would be nothing but a common hoodlum without the disarming and beguiling Victoria at his side, Hoskins would be strung out too far on his own without the incredibly assured and shockingly attractive Helen Mirren to share the screen with. Although she will probably be utterly gorgeous until the day she dies, Mirren, who had graced the screen for years before this, and has been a regular delight in art-house and mainstream movies ever since, is at her scintillating best here. Although not heavily involved with the more gratuitous and memorable scenes – barring the pub explosion and the climax, that is – Mirren ensures that Victoria is an absolutely vital linchpin to the developing saga. Her understanding of Harold is both touching and fatalistic. She knows that his powers only exist as long he seems to be in control. Her quick-thinking saves the day with the Yanks and her unabashed sexuality offers a point of control that she can even wield over Harold's minions. But Mirren breaks the heart just as Hoskins does when even her façade drops and Harold's temper gets the better of him. The lingering shot of the two of them cradling one another, Victoria in fear and Harold in stunned reverie at the day's events - “Don't let them kill us!” she sobs – is a sobering moment in a film that is happily laddish for the main part.

    “You're the real bastard around here.”

    Derek Thompson, still incredibly likeable as a gangster, is superb as Jeff. There is realism here. He sits at Harold's right and he is able to whisper in the King's ear. There is no doubt that he has some clout, but Thompson makes the guy young, naïve and very easy to empathise with. He's not the same as the others – he's not a heavy, despite that supposedly out-of-character moment when he snaps and attacks one of the hoods that Harold has got strung up in the abattoir. He's playing at the role, wanting to impress, wanting to be part of the gang. Jeff is learning the ropes, and the code, from the inside … but he is not a “natural”. Bryan Marshall is slimy and fallible as Councillor Harris, the man who can get Harold's big plans off the ground. Here's a guy who is sitting on a powder-keg (almost literally considering the explosives stored at his building site) but his failing is his booze. Easily under-the-influence, his mouth becomes dangerous and, bit-by-bit, we can see how fragile the foundations of Harold's empire really are. To sum this up, we only have to look at Paul Freeman's Colin, barely in the film and hardly uttering a word, he is Harold's best friend. An open homosexual, Colin's ever-prowling lifestyle is the very thing that will get that hammer and those nails ready for Harold's coffin. Harold's big mistake, it seems, is using friends as his business associates. His henchmen are solid and dependable … his friends are fickle and irresponsible.

    “You don't crucify people outside a church. Not on Good Friday.

    The film is filled with memorable and bravura moments. The celebrated sequence when Harold has all of his city-based rivals hauled in and hung upside-down from meat-hooks for a very specific interrogation is a classic, of course, but there are many other such images and impressions that are left lingering in the mind. A security guard left nailed to the floor in the cruciform, his own dog the first to find him and come licking at his bloodied wounds. The last-ditch bout of retribution that brings in some actually very rare gunplay. And the incredibly nasty throat-cutting is shuddersome not only because it is so gory and explicit, but because of the build-up that gone before, the “don't do it” shock-value of the deed, and the heart-rending aftermath. But the sight of the old Docklands as an urban wasteland is also a haunting signpost of yore, rather like seeing Liverpool's Albert Dock in Boys From The Black Stuff, or even the World Trade Centre in King King (1976) or Escape From New York. Who would have thought just how much it would have been transformed, after crazy stints serving as a Bronx ghetto in Death Wish 3 and as war-torn Vietnam in Full Metal Jacket, into the lush, futuristic and cosmopolitan enclave seen in The World Is Not Enough? You can the new apartments being pushing their way in, but the marina in which Harold moors his luxury yacht is as bleak and as lonely as the ends of the Earth. Yet you can sense that change is in the air. Perhaps the theme of the removal of the Old, with then old ironically being the Shand Corporation, the very people that want to bring change in the first place, with the New, or those who are striving to oust Harold, jus emphasises this, but Mackenzie's film is strewn with social evolutionary asides. “This used to be a nice neighbourhood,” says Harold about an old stamping ground. “These people deserve better than this.” He even saved his favourite pub, the ill-fated Lion And Unicorn, from being demolished. And then there is his firm's grudging respect for the little wannabe-thugs wanting protection money for not slashing his tyres. “From little acorns,” muses Razors with a grin.

    Mackenzie also handles the weirdly disjointed and perplexing prologue over in Northern Ireland with enough unsettling gravity as to have legitimate impact upon the rest of the film. He doesn't play it too obscure, but nor does he spell things out either. His film moves fast yet doesn't contain a great deal of action, the director allowing his actors to invest it with the necessary life, fury and danger. Keefe's wonderfully down-to-earth dialogue allows for lots of fruity exchanges. When told of how Colin's body has been transported from the swimming pool scene of his murder, incognito, in an ice cream van, Harold retorts “There's a lot of dignity in that, isn't there? Going out like a raspberry ripple.” And how about this delightful epitaph for poor Eric, last seen flying past the stained-glass windows of the church? Explaining to Erroll's “Ponce” how the poor driver feels after the Roller explosion, Harold says “Well, let's put it this way. Apart from his a*rsehole being about fifty yards away from his brains, and the choirboys playing 'unt the thimble with the rest of him, he ain't too happy.” But it is Harold's sly yet impulsive worming out of the truth from someone he trusted too much that reveals Keefe's dazzling way with words. And, of course, much later, when “H” gets to vent his spleen at the Mafia in that towering speech of empirical vitriol. At this point you have to catch yourself before punching the air and cheering … this is, when all said and done, a gangster we're rooting for here.

    After ten years of peace on the streets, Harold is now on the rampage, even getting his police chief inspector Parky (a pushed-to-the-limits Dave King) to bend the rules over bombs and investigations and threatening him. It gradually becomes clear that even if H is able to clear this mess up and come out the other side in one piece, things will never be how he dreamed they would. He could still win his historic deal, but he wouldn't be the same person any more. It is as though Harold is actually painstakingly removing himself from that dream with every step he takes to make it come true. Aiding this incredible sense of relentless inevitability is the wonderful score from Francis Monkman. Taking the John Carpenter route, Monkman, a jazz practitioner, hits the synthesizer to create strong pulsating rhythms of darkness and suspense, glistening chords and ethnic percussion go hand in hand with trilling woodwinds to evoke the tribal nature of the gangland warfare, and a fabulous and irresistibly swaggering saxophone motif for Harold Shand – this last motif, as brief as it is, is simply the most perfect musical summation of the mob-boss at the height of his powers. Firstly, we hear this theme as Harold arrives back from a successful preliminary meeting with the Big Boys in the States, literally striding through Heathrow Airport like a returning Emperor. It is bold, it is brazen, it is cocksure and thunderously arrogant. But Monkman allows it to twist very slightly in tone even when it is at its most ballsy, injecting a small yet distinctive shift that remarks upon the unstoppable tide of fate. And Harold's is already sealed even now. He just doesn't know it yet. Monkman's themes are repetitive and haunting, catchy and thrilling all at the same time. The full score, including source songs and material “inspired by” the film (London Calling – Eddy Bop, Teenage Kicks – Platinum Paddies, As Tears Go By – Sex Gang Children) was available from Metrodome a few years ago and may still be found. A couple of years afterwards, Roy Budd would create a score that sounded very much like it could be Good Friday's cousin for the great guilty pleasure of Ian Sharp's super-charged SAS thriller, Who Dares Wins starring Lewis Collins.

    “How do you stay so cool?”

    “Well, I'm on the winning side.”

    Brit-crime has always carried a gritty, knuckle-dusted back-alley vibe, from Brighton Rock to Layer Cake, but The Long Good Friday has the best pedigree and earns the biggest respect of them all. It isn't just the galvanising story and the tremendous performances, it is the fact that it arrived at such an epochal time for British culture. Although we always love to say that a movie is “timeless”, this is actually a genre to which that phrase very rarely applies. Each entry in The Godfather Trilogy clocked its year in blood. Scarface certainly positions itself squarely in the mid-eighties. Miller's Crossing doesn't specify a time or a place, but it is Prohibition-locked. Get Carter rides the 70's poverty-train, and Goodfellas meanders through a gaggle of adroitly realised eras. But, regardless of fashions, hairstyles, vehicles and weaponry, it is the atmosphere pervading The Long Good Friday that makes it such a relevant historical piece, and a true reflection of a time and a mindset that was set, just like the fuse in the film's poster, to explode. So, it may not be “timeless” then, but John Mackenzie's underworld tour de force is a bonafide classic that holds up to repeated viewings and, like The Wicker Man, carries such a hypnotic, edge of the seat charge that, no matter how many times you see it, you still think that Harold Shand is going to come up trumps at the end. Now that is genius – a film, a story and a character whose collective denouement you know so well still engaging and gripping you enough to maintain that suspension of disbelief.

    But that finale ...

    Okay, if you haven't seen the film please DO NOT read the next paragraph, and just skip to the technical aspects of the disc. This next bit for those of us who have gone the distance with Harold Shand before and know the outcome all too well.

    When our boy gets separated from Victoria and is bundled into the back of the car with an altogether different driver, we see an acting masterclass from Bob Hoskins. If he has surprised us with his energy and his ogrish charisma all the way through, then this wordless two-minute exit is something else again. Realising what we have suspected all along, that it is the IRA who are muscling him out of his territory, Harold Shand stares in disbelief, shock, horror, then gallows-like amusement and even final acceptance at the smiling assassin – Brosnan, again, in his second appearance in the film – as he is whisked off to what we know will not be a pleasant, or a quick demise. A fleeting and harrowing image of Victoria's silently screaming face in another vehicle adds a jolt of gut-squeezing terror, and there is an exquisite spell of bitterness as Harold puts some of the pieces together and susses out the various stages where he possibly went wrong and just who, on his side, wasn't doing their job properly. Ultimately, he realises that he never stood a chance from the minute he landed back at Heathrow. All of this is played out on Hoskins' face in an elaborate and scintillating display of totally instinctual in-character performance. And, all the while, Francis Monkman's awesome theme for Harold sizzles out over the top, that raucous saxophone now delivering the craziest last post salute that you can imagine for a guy who has gone through hell and still has the worst to come. It is tremendous stuff that sends a shiver down your spine. You gave it your best shot, 'arold. You ain't got nothin' to be ashamed of … but it's time to go now, son. The little smile that slowly creeps onto Brosnan's face is perhaps the most disturbing element of all … even worse than the terrifyingly dark eyes of the driver reflected in the rear-view mirror. But it doesn't matter what they do to him – it is Harold's realisation that he had failed and that his dream - “Hands across the ocean!” - will now never involve himself, and that he's been busted back down to little more than the weak guttersnipe trying to mess with the big boys, that he once evolved from.

    Like Scum, Quadrophenia, Kes and the blistering new salvo of harsh, thorn-tinted drama airing on TV screens at the time, The Long Good Friday represented a Britain that was light years away from the tweeness of Ealing, the bawdy humour of Carry On, and the rigid stiff upper-lipped heroism of a thousand classic war films. It showed Hollywood that we could be tougher, grittier and meaner than anything they could put out. Harold Shand may not have won the Yanks over with his masterplan, but just like Colin Welland had so famously warned at the Oscars when he picked up a gong for Chariots Of Fire, his doomed story proved that we were coming … and we were packing heat.

    Well-crafted and bravura, The Long Good Friday is Brit-crime at its best, primal, complex and resonant. The film is a classic of its kind. Darkly nostalgic and packed with vicious irony, its internal energy doesn't need shoot-outs, although we do get one, or car chases to ramp up the adrenaline. Story and character comes first and foremost and with Barrie Keefe's twisting screenplay and Bob Hoskins taking us on a final desperate tour of his Manor, you are in for a cold-hearted treat of suspense and paranoia.

    Thoroughly intriguing and boasting a shell-shock climax, The Long Good Friday comes extremely highly recommended.