London Boulevard review

Colin Farrell, on face value, has picked another interesting project to lend his talents to, here. But sadly, London Boulevard fails to deliver...

At my local cinema, it’s always conspicuous when my ticket stub tells me that I’m going to be watching a film in screen 7. It’s conspicuous, because that’s where I’ve seen films like In Bruges, Crazy Heart and Ondine. Coincidentally, it’s also the screen in which I saw London Boulevard.

I mention the reasons why I call screen 7 ‘The Colin Farrell Theatre’ because I think, to some extent, it shows the trajectory of Farrell’s career. Screen 7 isn’t a big deal. It’s not 3D-ready, it doesn’t have 400 seats, and it’s not often full up. It speaks of the kind of film that Farrell does these days, having once been in stuff like Phone Booth and Daredevil, while now, he’s doing a great job in mid-range work instead.

Perhaps I wouldn’t say I was a Farrell fan, but I do like all of the screen 7 films I mentioned. That is, all of them with the exception of London Boulevard, a film that’s such a misstep for all involved, that it might poison the careers of less well known filmmakers.

London Boulevard is based on the novel by Ken Bruen, itself loosely based on Billy Wilder’s classic movie, Sunset Boulevard, hence the title.

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Farrell plays Mitchell, an ex-con, who arrives blurry eyed into the mean streets of London after a spell in Pentonville prison. He’s spent all the time he wants to spend behind bars, so he resolves to go straight.

From there, the plot gets muddled. In one strain, he agrees to act as security for Charlotte, a reclusive movie star who’s hounded by the paparazzi in the wake of a messy marriage breakup. That’s the angle that comes from Sunset Boulevard, and the one that’s being peddled in the trailers and TV spots.

But aside from that, another subplot has Mitchell earning the ire of a big-fish gangster called Gant, and pitting his wits against him. Another has him mourning the senseless murder of his homeless Big Issue-vending friend, and vowing revenge. Another involves Mitchell’s mixed-up sister and her gold-digging ways.

The only thing that all of these subplots have in common, aside from Mitchell, is that they all involve crime. For a story about a guy who’s trying to go straight, our hero only renounces violence in the same way as someone on a diet renounces cake. They’re always coming back to it, and their lapses always come with extreme prejudice.

Writer William Monahan makes his directing debut here, having worked on screenplays with directors like Ridley Scott, Martin Campbell and Martin Scorsese, and picked up an Oscar  for his work with the latter on The Departed. His directorial debut is another gangster film, and that’s the most succinct review I can give of it: it’s another gangster film. Yet another British gangster film.

In terms of direction, Monahan is unmistakably aiming for the feel of British cinema in the 60s and 70s. Specifically, the feel of muscular crime flicks like Get Carter. This can be as subtle as it is in the soundtrack, or as risible and obvious as it is in poor Eddie Marsan being made to dress up as a pre-Life On Mars copper. It’s all just very uneven.

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The starry cast is undoubtedly here on account of Monahan’s reputation, because the story isn’t up to much, at least in its cinematic form. From early on, I gave a little cheer in my head at the merest first sight of some of these actors. Look, there’s David Thewlis! And there’s Stephen Graham! And look, there’s Eddie Marsan, even if he is made up to look like Gene Hunt’s dad!

Colin Farrell delivers a really convincing Cockney accent and a fine performance, but it feels like he’s being pulled this way and that by the careering tone of the film, rather than his character having any kind of sway over what happens. This is to say nothing of Ray Winstone, who at least has the presence of mind to be bored with his own same old gangster shtick.

These are the men of the film, and they might as well be the only ones there. Don’t be deceived by how Charlotte gives a bitter diatribe about what women are for in movies, namely “getting into the head or trousers” of the male lead. Just because that gender inequality is lamp-shaded in the dialogue, it doesn’t mean it’s not constantly present. Keira Knightley gives one of her better performances, making a starlet seem very convincing and very human, but it figures for nothing in the grand scheme of the film.

As it wears on, the film becomes aggressively profane and unlikeable, losing any scintilla of insight it might have had. It opens well, actually, but everything that happens feels like something from the beginning of a better film. All those subplots crowd each other out, so that as each of them are developed, there’s a sustained preliminary feel to the thing, not that you’d know it from the eclectic editing and pacing.

Opening in the much larger screen 6 this week is Unstoppable, in which an unmanned cargo train ploughs along, independent of any direction or interference. In the screen next door, I saw a beast even more out of control with London Boulevard. At least what Denzel Washington is chasing is restricted to rails, so it can be followed. This one starts strong, and then carries right on irrespective of being comprehensible or enjoyable or even any good.

It careens wildly between drama and caper, between gruesome circumstance and pandering humour. In all senses, it’s elevated by the highly experienced cast. What would this film be without them? Without all the prestige of its performers, or its Oscar-nominated screenwriter, then London Boulevard would be a Danny Dyer film.

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If that doesn’t tell you that it’s beneath the talents of Colin Farrell, then nothing will. Clean-up in screen 7, please.

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2 out of 5