Since the release of the British gangster film revival Lock, Stock, And Two Smoking Barrels, the fortunes of the actors who portrayed its grab-bag of criminals have been almost as varied as those of the characters themselves.
Jason Statham’s antics are documented in fervent detail across the pages of this very site, Jason Flemyng’s generally displeased fizzog has had a tendency to pop up in supporting roles in just about every Hollywood title released since the invention of the moving image, while Nick Moran has been no less prolific if, Harry Potter aside, a little less ‘not him again!’ noticeable.
Dexter Fletcher’s presence in the last decade of cinema has been fairly low-key, and Wild Bill marks his first venture into the considerably more hands-on and time consuming world on the other side of the camera. This is a shame, because, based on the evidence here, he has quite a considerable knack for it, and Wild Bill, it turns out, is a bit of a pleasant surprise.
Charlie Creed-Miles plays the titular Raucous William, an ex-drug dealer and ne’er-do-well who emerges bleary-eyed from eight long years at the whim of Her Majesty and our Sovereign, Queen Elizabeth II. He finds little on his South London estate has altered in his absence, besides the odd elevation of a few of his old pals into positions of greater criminal responsibility, yet his home is markedly different to the one he remembers. Late on during the period of Bill’s incarceration his wife selflessly absconded to foreign climes with her new squeeze, abandoning their two young sons Jimmy and Dean (Sammy Williams and Son Of Rambow and Narnia’s Will Poulter, respectively), who have since fended for themselves.
Dean, whose cash in hand job as a labourer has kept food on the table during the intervening months, has no great desire to rebuild relations with the estranged father he barely recalls, as the two boys can demonstrably survive without Bill’s destabilising influence. Yet Bill’s release from chokey brings in its wake intrusive parole meetings and social workers (one of whom is played by, yep, Jason Flemyng), and the boys’ hitherto clandestine home life sans parents is quickly noticed by The Man and his well-intentioned bureaucrats. Dean, despite his ignominy towards his father, makes him a deal, or, more accurately, blackmails him: Bill must hang around long enough to convince the social that the boys don’t need to be put into care, and then he is free to do as he pleases. If he refuses, Dean will tell The Man that Bill has been dealing, and back into the slammer he goes. Bill, it is made apparent, has absolutely no inclination towards the latter scenario, and he and Dean forge an uneasy deal.
Bill’s immediate problem, besides being at loggerheads with a son who holds an understandable grudge, is the difficulty in adjusting to the straight and narrow when the friends he left behind (Terry, a fellow footsoldier in Bill’s heyday, now a middle-manager-of-sorts, played by Brit-flick go-to bastard Leo Gregory; and Dicky, a post-Kill List Neil Maskell) unquestionably expect his prompt return to a shady life of dope-peddling schmuckerry. Unfortunately for Bill, it’s not long before these two worlds collide.
So what is Wild Bill? A bit of Brit-gangster fluff in the vein of Guy Richie? A kitchen sink family drama? Or a harder, more brutal tale of the engrained nature of criminality? Rather predictably (and as is often the case with setups of that structure), it’s something of a mixture of all three. Imagine a tone similar to that of an early series of Shameless and you’re somewhere close.
Wild Bill manages to pilfer the best elements from those various genres without succumbing too completely to their excesses: the criminal elements are both rooted in reality and the intentionally cartoonish over-emphases of entertainment (a maniacal Andy Serkis, in particular, delights in wolfing down everything within a four mile radius during his two scenes as gangland boss Glen). The drama is funny and occasionally sweet without ever being mawkish, and the character arcs are entertaining to witness, despite all being as predictable as tomorrow’s morning poo.
Creed-Miles is a reluctant, affable and befuddled Bill, and the fledgling protective instincts of fatherhood appear to come as a genuine surprise to him. Will Poulter is excellently cast as the put-upon Dean, face set into the perennial scowl of the affronted. The young Sammy Williams is also charmingly excellent as Jimmy, whose rudderless upbringing sets in motion the events that form the film’s latter third. The entire supporting cast, for the most part, fill their roles perfectly well, with only Misfits’ Iwan Rheon straying a little too close to an irritating overcompensation, as the young, chip-upon-shoulder crim Pill.
Fletcher wisely eschews any chintzy and clichéd Ritchie-esque cinematographic indulgences, instead choosing to draw pleasing, if well-worn, arcs for each of the characters with whom it is no chore to spend a couple of hours of your time. He also steers clear of Nick Love’s hyper-real, sometimes foreboding but often tiresome penchant for brutality: violence is present but never brutal, comedic moments are frequent but natural, and Danny Dyer is nowhere to be seen. It all hangs together rather well.
Wild Bill’s not particularly original, and its plot developments are never anything approaching surprising, but as a directorial debut with heart, wit and a disarming wish to simply tell a good story, it is hard to criticise Dexter Fletcher’s filmmaking debut too harshly.