British Crime and Gangster Films

“Go to some neighbourhoods in our country and you can feel that aspiration is dead. Children learning from a young age that life is about surviving, not thriving. Gang leaders as role models, drug dealers as career advisors. This doesn’t just matter to the elderly lady with five bolts on her door or the woman terrified to walk home in the dark. It matters to all of us.”   David Cameron – British Prime Minister

“Don’t fuck about, ping him!”  – Billy Bright ‘The Football Factory’

Last month saw the DVD realise of ‘The Smoke‘ (AKA ‘Two Days In The Smoke’) starring, amongst others, the always dependable Alan Ford and Stephen Marcus. It is the simple, everyday story of a lawyer who loses his job, falls for a prostitute and steals £400,000 from a gangland boss who not surprisingly wants it all back. It is a mad, high octane (as Hollywood likes to say) piece of throwaway fun.

It seems like 80% of films made in Britain these days are crime or gangster related so presumably they must sell well – but who has heard of ‘The Smoke’? Who was waiting with baited breath for its release? Who exactly watches these films? And why??

Did it all start with ‘Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels‘ (1998) A hugely popular film that grossed $3,753,929 in the US alone, had a television series spin off and made household names of Jason Statham, Nick Moran and of director Guy Ritchie. Well I am pretty sure that Lock Stock did cause huge ripples and spawned a lot of pale imitations (2004’s cheap knockabout ‘One Man And His Dog‘ instantly springs to mind) but Britain, like so many other countries, has always had a fondness for gangsters and baddies.

Graham Greene wrote ‘Brighton Rock‘ way back in 1938. This features the character Pinky Brown, perhaps the archetypal gangster – all sharp suits, frothing aggression and a desire to be at the top no matter what. Brighton Rock spawned not one but two adaptations into film (1947 & 2010) both as good as each other.

Then there were the Kray twins, dear old Ronnie and Reggie, whose presence in 60’s London caused earthquakes to the establishment. They had undeniable style and were mostly adored by the public (the ultimate 2 fingers up to the police?), especially in the east end of London where they dwelt as surely no dumb second rate criminal would dare cross them. “They only killed their own!” came the cries of defence when they were finally incarcerated for the murders of underworld miscreants George Cornell and Jack ‘the hat’ McVitie. “Yeah, human beings!” Replied rotund actor Arthur Mullard from Islington when asked about them once. Both now long gone of course but their ghosts live on in England. Whether you agree with Arthur or not the Kray twins have gone down in folk law. They are still the most famous name in British gangster history and 2015 will see the release of a film about them starring Tom Hardy in a dual role as both of the twins. This is the second film about the pair after 1990’s impressive ‘The Krays‘ starring Gary and Martin Kemp.

So there is the holy trinity: ‘Brighton Rock’, the actual Kray twins themselves and ‘Lock Stock’, the three things that inspire the Brit crime thriller/Gangster film the most.

So who do these films appeal to? The modern flicks in particular are always maligned as cheap and clichéd and simply just violence for violence sake. These can only be films for lads to watch boozed up, after a night at the pub right? Well you certainly can’t call them family films or films for women. In almost every gangster film there is at least one scene set in a strip club. The female of the sex, with a few exceptions, tend to only play beaten wives or a faceless brass, used for sex then disposed of, or maybe a partner who, after years of trying to persuade her criminal other half to give up that lifestyle, ends up having to lead a life of hardship and look after their baby alone after he inevitably gets butchered. The exceptions being 2012’s ‘Hard Boiled Sweets‘ where the female characters not only out think their male counterparts but they literally obliterate them. Noel Clarke’s sassy 2010 film ‘4,3,2,1‘ also sees a gang of girls one step ahead, having to think and fight their way to the top. Another strong lead for a female character is Claire Goose in the unnoticed 2010 film ‘Bad Day‘, where playing an undercover police woman she finds out that her young daughter has been murdered. Of course, revenge has to be extracted which she manages quite well by herself.  Parminder Nagra also takes a lead role as a tough cookie determined to clear her brother of a murder he didn’t commit in 2012’s ‘Twenty8k‘ set in London during the build up to the Olympic Games. In 2003, three of the girls from the band All Saints starred in ‘Honest‘, a film where they played robbers stealing from the rich. Set in the swinging sixties the film has a psychedelic feel to it and is one of the most hated and abused films of modern times but in all honesty (pardon the pun) it really isn’t that bad and should be seen…if only once. Not really in keeping with any of the above films but worth a mention is Helen Mirren’s character in Peter Greenaway’s 1990’s feast for the eyes ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover‘ where, after years of abuse at the hands of her tyrannical husband played awfully well by Michael Gambon she finally turns, forcing him at gunpoint to eat part of her cooked lovers body before shooting him dead. But these really are the exceptions to the hundreds of male dominated films.

So these films are for guys then? Hmmmm, maybe. But why? Why do we aspire to these criminals? These are the sort of people you wouldn’t want to live next door to. You wouldn’t trust. Who wouldn’t trust you. The premise behind 1997’s ‘Face‘ is that within a tight nit group of blaggers (a sublime cast featuring stalwarts Robert Carlyle, Phillip Davies and Ray Winstone) one has betrayed them and it is a race against time to find out which one. It seems there is no loyalty within these gangs. It is so hard to find a character, particularly a head honcho, who it is actually possible to like. Once seen, who can ever forget Dan Logan played alarmingly well by Gandhi himself, Ben Kingsley, in 2000’s ‘Sexy Beast‘, a man so unpleasant he actually manages to terrify Ray Winstone who is at least 6 times bigger than him. A foul-mouthed vile little man, who just won’t take no for an answer. In the generation jumping ‘Gangster No.1‘ from 2002, both Malcom McDowell and David Thewlis, who lead the gang, are equally dislikeable. You feel compelled to cheer neither of them on. And things get worse if you are looking for heroes. In 2012’s ‘Best Laid Plans‘, Joseph, played beautifully by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, is a mentally handicapped gentle giant forced into cage fights by a despicable crime boss to pay off debts incurred by his friend Danny (Stephen Graham). 2006’s ‘London To Brighton‘ sees an underage girl procured for sex with a business man. Surely nobody could ever want to aspire to this. Even the aforementioned Pinkie from ‘Brighton Rock‘ is dislikable. In one scene he is attacked by fellow mobsters and, finding himself alone with no back up, practically bursts into tears. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at this as this is the man who was prepared to woo and marry an innocent girl just so she couldn’t testify against him and, when things didn’t go right, almost persuaded her to commit suicide, too cowardly to kill her himself. Probably the most liked gangland leader is Harold Shand in 1979’s ‘The Long Good Friday‘.  Maybe it is because Shand is played by the late, great Bob Hoskins or maybe it is because as an audience we are not sure what is happening to the poor bastard in the film as his fisted grip on the kingdom he has built is prised away finger by finger by an unseen force until he has nothing.

Don’t worry though, there are always the police in these films to protect us….Like Vinnie Jones in 2010’s ‘The Heavy‘ – as bent as they come! Or Rufus Sewell in 2013’s ‘The Deadly Game‘, who is just pure evil. With the law on their side, these spiritually corrupt souls are far worse than any gangster could ever hope to be.

Maybe these films are just art imitating life. There really are some evil felons out there, and there have been plenty of films either about true life villains or certainly based on them. ‘The Krays‘ we already mentioned, a stylish period piece that captures the spirit of the time quite well. Not so successful was the 2003 film about the Kray’s rivals from across the river, the Richardsons. ‘Charlie‘ starring ex pop starlet Luke Goss just seemed to lack the style. 2013 saw the flexable Martin Compston go up a notch playing real life hoodlum Paul Ferris in ‘The Wee Man‘ set in Glasgow’s unflinching streets. 1988 saw the release of the film ‘Buster‘, a vehicle for Phil Collins. He starred (not badly as it happens) as one of the Great train robbers, Buster Edwards. What is unusual about this film is it is actually comes across as a romantic comedy, not like the 1967 film ‘Robbery‘ – ‘inspired by the great train robbery’ it says but it may as well have been called The Great Train Robbery. Then we have ‘Bronson‘ from 2009 about perennial porridge eater Charles Bronson. Again this film is unusual because it is quite arty. There is a deliberate attempt to make something a little different with this film. A bright surreal almost musical celebration about one of Britain’s best known psychopaths. I have yet to meet anybody who actually likes it though. “A number of picturesque deaths in striking locations” said a reviewer about the 1971 film ‘Villain‘ starring Richard Burton. Allegedly based on Ronnie Kray, Burton camps it up until the very last scene. Well worth a watch: “as distinctive a gangster for Britain as Cagney was for America” said another observer but we will go across the pond in a minute. Without doubt Diana Dors finest moment came in the 1956 prison based ‘Yield To The Night‘ which is loosely based on the story of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged for murder in Britain. A fact based story of Ruth Ellis would have been impossible in 1956, such was the horror of her life, and would still be difficult today. Roger Daltry puts in a sterling effort playing ex-armed robber and prison escapee turned writer, John McVicar, in 1980’s racy ‘McVicar‘. If you want the definitive ‘life as a gangster from the past’ then I suggest watching Nicola Collin’s Docufilm from 2008 ‘The End‘ which, shot entirely in black and white, talks to the actual old school. The original cockney gangsters, men like Roy Shaw, Mickey Goldtooth and Mickey Teheny, along with many others recall their, ahem, careers. And what about the here and now? There is Donal Macintyre’s rise and fall of a crime boss ‘A Very British Gangster‘ (2007 and a follow up film 2011) following the infamous Noonan family from Manchester. Not to be messed with, but the style and wit has definitely gone down the years, the Noonans wouldn’t look out of place on The Jeremy Kyle show, the Krays would. “Look after those that look after you, fuck off those that fuck off you” so says head Noonan Dominic, AKA Mr Lattlay Fottfoy (get it?) which is a declaration that seems to sum up the mindset of the gangster.

There are further blurrings of fact and fiction in this genre too, namely when ‘real life’ gangsters act in films. In 1996, ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser – a man who has spent 42 years of his 90 on this planet behind bars – played a crime lord called Pops Den in the film ‘Hard Men‘. This was to be his one and only acting appearance. And then there is Bermondsey’s own Dave Courtney, whose real life gangster credentials have been questioned once or twice, and who seems intent to make it in the world of movies. From the woefully self indulgent ‘Hell To Pay‘ from 2009, which also features real life Kray twin associates Roy ‘Pretty Boy’ Shaw and Tony Lambrianou to name but a couple, to the contemporary and actually rather good ‘The Estate‘ (2011) and the very ambitious ‘Full English Breakfast‘ (2014), Mr Courtney is hardly Orson Welles but what does shine through is his love and enthusiasm for this genre of film.

One of Britains biggest real life crime stories of recent years has been the 1995 Rettendon Range Rover murders. Although arrests were made and life sentences handed down it appears that nobody really knows what happened that fateful snowy night in that country lane…or rather nobody is prepared to say. So there are 4 films that cover the subject: 1999’s ‘Essex Boys‘, 2007’s ‘Rise Of The Footsoldier’, 2010’s ‘Bonded By Blood‘’ and 2012’s ‘The Fall Of The Essex Boys‘ (I have not included 2013’s ‘Essex Boys Retribution‘ as I haven’t seen it and I am not sure it has any real connection to the actual murders).  Each film alters slightly in who was involved and what happens. ‘The Rise Of The Footsoldier‘  manages to shade the others though as it is based on the autobiography of Carlton Leach – one of the chaps who was connected to the case. All of them fail to clear up 100% what happened though…

I mentioned Cagney earlier. So how do the Brit flicks stand up to our American cousins? There are 3 films that I know of that are called ‘Shooters‘. In the film of that name from 2001, and set in Liverpool with unknown actors semi-improvising their roles of steroid injecting drug pushing scallies, one of the characters vomits in the lounge of a man he has just had to shoot in the head because he took his balaclava off and revealed his identity. You cannot ever imagine seeing a cocky Joe Pesci doing that in ‘Goodfellows’. It truly is a million miles away from the glitz and glamour of  ‘Casino’, just as the bunch of misfits and loons that make up the family in Ben Wheater’s over the top and frankly overrated ‘Down Terrace‘ (2009) are a million miles away from the Corleone’s – the money laden family in ‘The Godfather’.

But it is not all grim. Brit crime thrillers can be classy too. Ridley Scott is the executive producer of 2013’s ‘Welcome To The Punch‘, and it shows, with its stunning shots of London at night as a back drop to determined copper James McAvoy taking on his shady nemeses played by the brooding Mark Strong. 2004’s popular ‘Layer Cake’ features future James Bond Daniel Craig. The ever popular Jason Statham takes on the role of an uncompromising policeman in 2010’s ‘Blitz‘, which again features pleasing on the eye shots of London and a script which will keep you interested until the end. ‘London Bouleward‘ (2010) features the beautiful people, Kiera Knightley and Colin Farrell.  Not all films revolve around London. 2000’s well written thriller ‘Circus‘ takes the action from the capital to Brighton and keeps you guessing right up until the end. It also boasts a curious cast including Eddie Izzard as a crime lord and Brian Conley. 1995’s ‘Small Faces‘ is set in 1960’s Glasgow and has recently been voted as one of the top 100 films to see before you die. It has a slow pace but stays with you long after you have seen it. Also worth a mention is the awfully named ‘This Is Essex’ from 2007, which sounds like it is a TOWIE spin off but in fact is a beautifully shot film with a heart and a conscience.

But where do these gangsters get so much money?! In the good old days it would be from security van blags and bank heists. Robberies have always been popular in cinema history. The 1954 anglo American film ’The Good Die Young’, written by Richard Macauley, saw the rather nervous bank financing the film asking for the heist to be switched to a post office instead! The 1960 classic ‘The League Of Gentlemen’ with its mega cast including Jack Hawkin and Richard Attenborough whose plans to rob a bank are meticulous, surely they have planned for everything…..Then in 1961 the slightly more sinister ‘Payroll’ (tagline – “If anyone cracked, they’d all swing”) entered darker territory as a security guard is killed during a robbery and these were the days when the death penalty was still in use for murder….it is gripping stuff watching the gang fall apart. Nowadays of course, with tighter security and technology, bank jobs are much rarer. There have been a couple of films from the past decade. 2007’s ‘Daylight Robbery’ isn’t as strong as it could have been and the same applies to ‘Tuesday’ from the same year which is a killer soundtrack away from being a good cult film. Both films feature fine casts but the idea of the bank job feels kind of outdated. These days the money seems to be made from drugs, prostitution and protection, although there are some exceptions. ‘The Disappearance of Alice Creed’ (2010) sees a couple of old prison mates (Eddie Marson and Martin Compston) attempt an ambitious kidnap. There are so many twists and turns in this film it keeps you guessing right up until the end and is highly recommended. In 2010’s ‘Freight’, starring the splendid Billy Murray and Craig Fairbrass, the cash comes from human trafficking. 2008’s masterful ‘In Bruge’ sees the money being made by Brendon Gleeson and Colin Farrell as hit men.

So the money comes easily to those without a conscience however, unlike the loyalty of the Kray twins era there is always somebody else waiting to take over at the top. 2008’s ‘The Big I Am’, starring Leo Gregory and the immaculate Vincent Reagan, has a nice twist on this idea and is well worth looking out for. These two also star in 2014’s watchable ’Top Dog’ where, despite losing family and friends, they are prepared to go all the way to be the big man. The topic of being ‘top firm’ features a lot in these films. Another example is the amazingly titled ‘Triads, Yardies and Onion Bhajees’ from 2003 where London is split as following: North London by The Triads, South London by the Yardies, East London by old school Cockneys (Good old Dave Courtney again!) and West London by a mixed race crime syndicate. Through various misunderstandings all of these teams clash. What is interesting is the first mobsters to perish are the East End boys. Something new has happened in these films where a lot of the British gangsters are depicted as old fashioned, paunchy and slow to react to the new breed of smart Eastern European gangsters that have arrived. I mentioned ‘Freight’ earlier where the Eastern European gangsters are always one step ahead. In the British/American/Canadian film ‘Eastern Promises’ from 2007, we get to see how clean and tidy Russian gangsters go about their business. This is a far cry from the suited British hooligans from the terraces in 2012’s ’St Georges Day’, starring the wonderful Frank Harper and Neil Maskell as well as Craig Fairbrass again, who has come along way from Eastenders but never gets any recognition. The film is actually rather good and has a sense of patriotism as the name suggests. It is a bit like ‘The Italian Job’ on acid.

Although the Kray Twins shadow still looms large over Britain, they could never happen again, their time has gone. As usual youth takes over. This is depicted well in so called ‘urban’ films where gangs run riot, such as 2006’s brilliant ‘Kidulthood’ (and its slightly less spectacular, revenge themed follow up, ‘Adulthood’ from 2008) or the set in the future romp of 2010’s a bit crap ‘Shank’ the list is quickly becoming endless of this sort of film. If you can cope with the “Yo Blud” type of slang dialogue there are plenty of treats to be found.

A lot of the modern films can be rather samey though. Either – A ne’er do well gets released from prison and sees how well his sibling is doing and wants a piece of the action or….an innocent man gets released from prison and swears revenge on the people that put him there. See for example 2002’s ‘Everybody Loves Sunshine’ starring David Bowie and Goldie or 2000’s hardly known ‘It Was An Accident Waiting To Happen’ starring a young Thandie Newton and the great James Bolam. Just follow this pattern. In fact 2 films (2010’s ‘Baseline’ and 2012’s ‘The Grind’ are exactly the same story but told from different perspectives. What confuses this even more is the fact that several of the same cast appear in both films but playing different characters! Written by Lock Stock’s Dexter Fletcher, 2012’s ‘Wild Bill’ plays with the idea of a man just released from prison (Charles Creed-Miles) whose son gets into trouble with a local crime lord, leaving him the dilemma of being bad to rescue his boy or doing the right thing. As always there are exceptions: The crime film has branched out! Craig Fairbrass again stars in 2010’s daft but watchable ‘Dead Cert’ as a gangster who happens to open a nightclub on the sacred ground of vampire Dante Livienko played by Billy Murray! Yes! It is vampires V Gangsters! Another horror mash up is seen in 2012’s ‘The Devils Business’, which slowly burns away nicely as 2 hit men are sent to murder an underworld boss at his home until the last quarter when it suddenly becomes like an old Hammer ‘beast in the cellar’ type horror. Strange. But not as strange as 2006’s ‘Botched’ where Stephen Dorff plays a professional thief sent to Russia to steal a priceless crucifix….the rest needs to be seen to be believed unlike 2012’s ‘Gangsters, Guns and Zombies’ which, despite a good performance from the super Huggy Leaver, really is as shite as the name suggests and should never be seen. Avoid at all costs. Other than vampires and zombies there has been a rise in another way of making crime films that has come from the horror genre ever since the success of ‘The Blair Witch Project’, i.e. the found footage film. The most effective is 2010’s ‘Terry’, produced by and starring starring Nick Nevern. The mock documentary of the terribly titled ‘Diary Of A Bad Lad’ also from 2010 is gory but well worth finding.

So who watches these films? Urm, well, me I guess. Do I aspire to be a gangster? Nooooo, I tremble at aggro. I just enjoy the films as unpretentious make believe. I love every twist and turn of some of the plots to see who come out on top. I recognise the streets and the cars. I can almost smell the sick in the gutter and taste the blood. I love the actors involved – The good (Ray Winstone, Billy Murray, Jamie Foreman) The Bad (Danny Dyer) and the indifferent (Neil Morrissey in ‘Triggermen’ 2004). If you can stomach the violence and the bad language (one of the extras on the DVD of ‘Bonded By Blood’ actually teaches us how to say the word ‘cunt’ correctly if we want to be a mockney gangsters), then they can be compelling and enjoyable.

Which brings us back to ‘The Smoke’. Who waited for its release? Me! Is it any good? Alas, not really. It is filmed very well with yet more shots of Tower Bridge and London twinkling away at night but that really is the high point. The screen does light up every time Alan Ford appears, who delivers his dialogue in that wonderful way that Alan Ford does. But the story is a bit naff. The main scenes that tie the film together are so contrived it loses any credibility. The nudity is gratuitous and just not needed. Even though the film comes in at just about an hour and twenty five minutes there are some scenes that just feel like padding. The cast are fine though. Ex-Eastender and Strictly Come Dancing star Matt Di Angelo is ok in the lead role. It is a pity there wasn’t more of the multi talented Yennis Cheung other than a couple of lines. So, all in all, a massive let down. Essential non viewing.

But I will be keeping my eyes open for the next Brit crime film that comes out.

Article written by Marc Price (2014)

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