Gerald Johnson’s London crime drama Hyena stretches the definition of ‘good copper’ by some distance. Our anti-hero, Michael Logan, is not morally upstanding as much as he is competent and the film is open about that from the very beginning.
Michael (Peter Ferdinando) is the corrupt, substance abusing leader of a corrupt, substance abusing task force in a corrupt, mostly substance abusing Met. After he sees a contact murdered in front of him by a pair of Albanian brothers called the Kabashis, (Orli Shuka and Gjevat Kelmendi) who have designs on the London drug trade, his chickens all come home to roost at once.
Aside from being reassigned to the command of former partner David Knight (Stephen Graham) and having Internal Affairs’ Taylor (Richard Dormer) breathing down his neck, Michael realises that the Albanians are also trafficking people, as well as drugs, and so begins a personal, sweaty and agitated race to bring the criminals down.
The film definitely starts in style, with a striking, properly retro title card. It would be a tad too hip to dedicate too much of the review to how cool it looks, but it sets the tone nicely. The next thing we see after that is a violent and chaotic drugs raid in a neon-soaked nightclub, terrifically shot and scored, in which the armed silhouettes who invade the club could as easily be baddies as goodies.
For better or worse, this confusion is what comes to sum up Hyena. Although the metaphor is (wisely) never explicitly stated in the film, the title clearly refers to a pack animal noted for scavenging. Our protagonist is actively in the game of profiting from human misery in such a way that it’s quite hard to relate with him in any way.
The cynicism in Johnson’s script is so pervasive and alienating, it becomes difficult to follow what is actually a fairly uncomplicated plot- you’ll root for the inevitably nasty end to come around quickly. But it deliberately takes its time over the whole grisly business, setting up foreign extremes in sympathy just to shake up the monotony.
As with the driller-killers in American Sniper, the Kabashi brothers are given to extreme and gory violence just to underline that, yes, they’re the real baddies here. And more crudely, Michael is taken by one of the Kabashis’ saleable captives, Ariana, (Elisa Lasowski) whose role is pretty much restricted to abject misery and terrible suffering.
This comes to a crescendo in the film’s weakest scene – a graphic and narratively redundant shot in which she is unconscious and powerless against the whims of one of her captors. MyAnna Buring doesn’t suffer anything like the same indignity in the role of Michael’s long-suffering girlfriend, but neither is she given enough to buck the toxic masculinity in force throughout the film.
Ferdinando (who may be best known as one of the inmates in Starred Up or as the Half-Face Man from the most recent series of Doctor Who) does a fine job in the lead role – however quickly you lose sympathy with his coke-snorting copper, he’s essentially watchable whenever the film desperately needs him to be.
Likewise, Stephen Graham puts in a decent showing as the oddly perma-tanned Knight, a smug and unctuous figure who would drive anyone up the wall, but also turns out to have had some history with Michael.
By vast contrast, the characters who make up Michael’s team, played by the likes of Neil Maskell and Tony Pitts, are pretty tiresome. In the beginning of the film, the plot looks like it might be reminiscent of David Ayer’s Sabotage, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger played the leader of a corrupt DEA task force, but as it becomes more concentrated on Michael, they become utterly redundant.
Hyena is an enveloping swamp of style and substance abuse that still has far more of The Bill than of Pusher. Benjamin Kracun’s tremendous cinematography and the musical identity instilled by The The’s original score both recall the films of Nicolas Winding-Refn, and as mentioned, the script is sometimes reminiscent of the way that David Ayer makes gritty interrogations of movie masculinity.
The film’s genre aspirations are manifold and Johnson has shown his workings, but if you struggle to get past the complete suspension of sympathy in any of the characters, then it’s an ambitious, blue-rinsed slog of a movie.
Hyena is out in UK cinemas on March 6th
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.