Another week, another cockney gangster movie. Directed by first-timer Frank Harper, St George’s Day bundles together tropes and conventions in the hope of crafting a twisty crime caper, but its execution, sadly, lets it down.
Harper, seen previously in similarly masculine films like The Football Factory, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Screwed, also stars as protagonist Mickey, a London gangster who has built a drug-dealing empire with his cousin, Ray (Craig Fairbrass). While Mickey is still turned on by their nefarious business, Ray is hoping to transition into a more legitimate life after decades of crime. However, when a new shipment – their last before Ray moves on – is lost in the North Sea, they find themselves in debt to the Russian mob, and on the run from a team of tenacious coppers.
So far, so conventional, and St George’s Day never really shakes the feeling that every one of its arbitrary plot developments – the notion of ‘one last job’, the presence of snitches on both the gangster and police sides of the fence, the desire for legitimacy and the inescapable magnetic field of crime – had been done to death long ago.
The screenplay, co-written by Harper, is full of blokey cod-philosophy, moving from characters declaring ‘our way of life is coming to an end’ to a curtain-call rallying cry of ‘carpe diem’. It makes a bid for international scope by shifting the action from London grime to the grim (and lads-mag sexist) hedonism of Amsterdam, but there is something parochial about the script’s obsession with Brit-geezer touchstones, from World War 2 to football hooliganism.
To tie together this tale of bent cops, crime bosses, cockneys and russkis, Harper relies on that attractive but unsatisfying friend of the voice-over narration, packing in plenty of exposition to the point where twists and turns are telegraphed way in advance. To make matters worse, it seems that the three-headed role of star, writer and director has affected the actor’s performance. The narration itself makes Harrison Ford’s laconic, phoned-in Blade Runner voice-over seem charismatic, while there are points throughout where Harper’s energy and delivery seem to sag, and certainly don’t suit a character whose street nickname is reportedly ‘Mad’ Mickey.
Luckily, the cast is filled out by a familiar mix of Brit-flick stalwarts, soap stars and one or two of the best actors in the country. Craig Fairbrass cuts an imposing figure, but there’s a softness behind his eyes that gives some dimension to Ray’s flip-floppy nature. Even when he’s back on the blow, and packing a shooter once more, there’s still something that makes us believe he wants a different, better life. Meanwhile, the likes of Neil Maskell, Sean Pertwee, Nick Moran, Dexter Fletcher and Charles Dance are criminally underused in roles that range from one-scene cameos (Fletcher) to a series of talky, rambly exchanges by the side of the Thames that are not only perfunctory, but at least one or two takes away from hitting the mark (Dance).
Perhaps Harper was calling in a few favours here, and slotting in shoots when actors were available, but the underwritten script and undercooked direction squander what could be an engaging ensemble. However, this is symptomatic of the quick, cheap and somewhat uninspired nature of the project. The production and set design are non-existent, and scenes take place on the streets of London in favour of scouting out interior locations, or spending money on more studio time.
Perhaps the budget went on, amongst other things, the sequences where Ray and Mickey elope to the continent, but despite such a stretch, St George’s Day is lacking in ambition, flair and originality. For all its swagger, it’s just another cockney gangster movie – and not a very good one at that.