When Lock-Stock & Two Smoking Barrels first hit our screens back in 1998, it signalled the beginning of a spate of British Crime movies that would mostly enjoy great success; Snatch, Rock 'N Rolla, Sexy Beast, Gangster No. 1 and Layer Cake – to name but a few. It would also herald the start of a career for Jason Statham that nobody could have expected– who would have thought he would go on to become one of Hollywood's busiest action men? The subsequent years since the re-birth of British Crime cinema, have left the genre feeling stretched and worn out. I find it increasingly difficult to become excited about any new offerings in the genre, largely because even today, many try to emulate Guy Ritchie's heavily stylistic approach to gangster movies, and I struggle to see anything new in it. The difference between the latest mob of Brit-Gangster flicks can be measured by how brutal the violence is, or how funny the dialogue is. Call me a stick-in-the-mud, but I like my cinema to at least make an effort to break away from the band wagon.
Being the directorial debut of one of Lock Stock's principle actors, Dexter Fletcher, it was with some apprehension that I approached Wild Bill. I was pretty sure of what to expect – an East End gangster romp with snappy dialogue, quick quips and a script delivered with that pseudo-shakespearian inflection that makes Londoners sound like they're speaking in iambic pentameter, all wrapped up in a bland and unimaginative package that smacks of Guy Ritchie.
I'm pleased to say that I was wrong.
Ok, it does bear some of the typical hallmarks of the genre, and it definitely isn't a screenplay that challenges the norm or tries to punch above it's weight - but it is a solid, endearing and wholly watchable affair that both surprised and entertained me.
It's the story of Bill (Charlie Creed-Miles) an East-Ender newly released from prison after an 8 year stay at her majesty's pleasure. Formerly a wide-boy drug dealer running with the gangs of East London, Bill emerges from prison with a naïve but honest plan to go straight. His intentions of avoiding falling back into his old ways and moving away from London to head north to Glasgow are thwarted when he finds that Dean (Will Poulter), his eldest son, has been looking after himself and his younger brother, Jimmy (Sammy Williams), alone since their mum abandoned them and moved to Spain.
Dean, who had been avoiding the system by staying under Social Services' radar, in their high rise flat, is somewhat displeased at the return of his father and is worried that it may call undue attention to their situation. With Social Services sniffing around, Dean blackmails his father into staying long enough to convince them that there's no need for the two boys to be taken into care, something that Dean had managed to avoid up until now. Reluctantly, Bill sets about convincing Social Services that he's taking responsibility for the kids, and begins to play the part of the dutiful father. Soon, the line between an act for the benefit of Social Services and reality begins to blur for Bill and he finds himself reconnecting with the boys on a level that he never thought possible.
When things start to go sour with Jimmy, his youngest, becoming embroiled in some petty drug dealing for one of Bill's old crew, the situation begins to heat up. It's here we find out why Bill, up to now a reasonably affable chap avoiding the sways of his old life, earned the name – Wild Bill. Driven by his newfound affection for his kids and his desperate desire to ensure the safety of his family unit, Bill tries to deal with Jimmy's debts to the drug dealers amiably. When he finds that the debts cannot be paid in money, and faced with no alternative, he decides they will be paid for with an entirely different form of currency. As he realises that trouble is unavoidable, we see a change in Bill that shows us his true nature, reluctant but more than capable of fighting – A man who will do anything to protect his family.
It's a gangster film with a heart. Set against the backdrop of urban renewal, many parallels can be drawn from the setting of the Olympic Stadium construction site, ever present throughout the film, to Bill's rebuilding of the broken family unit. Whether intentional or not, it serves as a constant reminder that out of a somewhat bleak setting, a thing of beauty and wonder can rise. A sentiment that I found unavoidable throughout the movie, and Dexter Fletcher handles it well.
Fletcher is a seasoned actor having starred in numerous big movies over his career and is not without experience. Though for the first time here, he remains behind the camera (but for a barely noticeable cameo), and for a directorial debut, there are no major glaring errors on show. It certainly bears the stylistic hallmarks of a Guy Ritchie film, which is hardly surprising, but it doesn't feel contrived or too heavy handed with it. I guess you could argue that it's more a nod of appreciation in Ritchie's direction, but this would be a forgiving argument - more likely is it that Fletcher set out to emulate Ritchie's style to a degree.
Casting has it's ups and downs. Charlie Creed-Miles is excellent as Bill, playing the role with a believable and genuine sense of knowledge of his character. You can easily accept the fact that the character has a violent past, not just from the visible scar Creed-Miles bears, but also whatever it is he manages to conjure just behind the eyes. They tell a brilliantly accurate story of Bill's attitude and past, always hinting at experience, and Creed-Miles allows this to shine without over acting it.
Will Poulter plays Dean very well. He has an air of obsessive anger about him at having been left on his own to look after himself and his little brother. Though from an entirely different background to his character, Poulter doesn't seem to find it hard to convince us that he's every bit as angry as abandonment would make any 15 year old boy. Living in a high rise flat and working on the construction of the Velodrome nearby, his role as the big brother affords him plenty of opportunity to shine. Perhaps not the most challenging role, but it gives Poulter plenty of opportunity to show off some of the obvious talent he has. Already making waves with a noteworth performance in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, expect to see much more of him in the future.
Liz White, who recently made an appearance in the wholly unsatisfactory “The Woman in Black”, plays the -desperate to mother- drug addict prostitute pretty well too. She's likeable and warm, but strangely, whilst being from Rotherham, her Yorkshire accent feels slightly forced. Perhaps it just stands out so far from the East London accents that are ever present throughout. Sammy Williams (Attack the Block) plays Jimmy, Bill's youngest son. There's a constant feeling that this is not quite acting for young Sammy, as I think his casting was based largely on the fact that he's an East End boy and general -little scamp- anyway. Solid nevertheless. Iwan Rheon turns in a slightly overplayed but bearable performance as “Pill”, one of the street level gang members that now runs with Bill's old crew. One of the new wave of street-level gangsters, he never fails to be too loud, too blatant and too irritating with his constant deluge of street-slang and general verbal diarrhoea. Neill Maskell, quick off the back of his excellent performance in gritty and disturbing Kill List, offers a somewhat lack-lustre performance as Dickie, the right hand man of the new crew boss. It's just slightly wide of the mark, and never feels that authentic – a performance perhaps better suited to a more comedic incarnation of the Brit-Gang flick. Slightly out of place here as Wild Bill falls within a sort of grey area on humour in that it's absolutely not a comedy, but it is sort of funny.
And then there's Andy Serkis. This casting feels more like a move to add some weight. It's such a minor role in the scheme of things, that it smacks of happenstance - that Fletcher or his casting director heard that Serkis was available, and crowbarred him into a role that is underdeveloped and weak. It's almost as though they had an afternoon with him, and the majority of his stuff ended up being rushed, and subsequently on the cutting room floor. That being said, with what little screen time Serkis has, he is powerful and commanding as the king-pin of East London. He carries an air of the psychotic lunatic about him, and his interactions with Creed-Miles are humming with an undercurrent of bubbling aggression.
Wild Bill is not without its warts, such as the love interest for Dean feeling underdeveloped and almost air-dropped into the screenplay; or the sense that the movie is never quite sure of whether it wants to be a drama, or a black comedy. There are some unquestionable laugh out loud moments, but these seem sparse – just not sparse enough to convince me this is an all out drama. The fighting is badly choreographed and feels hugely rushed, though this is compensated for by the little touches such as Bill's hands shaking violently after the fight. All in all, not a great deal to moan about, but a long way from being perfect.
At it's core, it's a heartwarming tale, with moments of real magic - the paper plane scene is beautiful and majestic, and in a lot of ways replicates Bill's narrative, meandering and wayward, constantly being affected by outside influences. Drawing on spaghetti western themes in its set up and photography (Fletcher being an avid fan of the genre), Wild Bill manages to carry us through a man's journey from being completely self centred, to realising that family is more important than anything – and it does it well. It never feels contrived, and is always entertaining. A sterling offering for a first time director. It shows great promise for what Dexter Fletcher will bring us with his upcoming Western “Provenance”, for which I shall be waiting with baited breath.
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