Dir: Saul Dibb. UK. 2004.91mins

A low-budget blackBritish film with energy and attitude, Bullet Boy is among the moreinvigorating UK movie debuts of recent years. In his first feature, directorSaul Dibb (best known as a documentary maker) uses his north London locationsin eerie, atmospheric fashion and manages to deal with gun crime andgangsterism without preaching.

Part thriller, part familymelodrama, the film is plotted along familiar lines (ex-con struggles to gostraight and is drawn back into a life of crime), but is dynamic enough to getaway with its borrowings.

Bullet Boy has already been feted at festivals from Toronto toLondon and looks likely to surface at several others, if only because it showsa newer, fresher side of British cinema than international audiences areaccustomed to.

With its downbeat subjectmatter, Bullet Boy may prove a hard sell at the UK box-office (where itis scheduled to open next spring), but theatrical prospects will be boosted ifdistributor Verve manage successfully to target the many followers ofcontroversial British collective So Solid Crew (one of whose members, AshleyWalters, plays the lead.) The film will also reach a substantial audience onterrestrial TV (it was co-funded by the BBC).

As the action begins, RickyJames Gordon (Walters) is being released from a young offenders' institution inthe countryside. His friend Wisdom (Leon Black) is waiting for him, as is his12-year-old brother Curtis (Luke Fraser), who has played truant from school.

They drive back to Londonbut when they arrive there, have a minor traffic accident. The hoodlum whosemirror they have bashed demands money and intimidates Wisdom with his bulldog.Ricky is reunited with his girlfriend and (very briefly) with hislong-suffering mother, but when Wisdom decides to take his feud with thehoodlum further, Ricky is drawn in. He doesn't want to return to a world ofpetty crime, but it's made clear that unless he is prepared to stack shelves,his options are limited.

His mother (movingly playedby Claire Perkins) tries forlornly to keep him on the level, but his loyalty toWisdom (who apparently once 'saved' his life) obliges him to followhis friend, however rash his plans. What starts as an attempt by Wisdom to saveface turns into a bloody and destructive war. Ricky's gun is at the root of thetragedy which follows.

Dibb doesn't avoid gangstermovie cliches altogether. There are echoes here of everything from Mean Streetsto Public Enemy. As in Thomas Vinterberg's forthcoming (Von Trier-scripted) DearWendy, the gun is fetishised. Wisdom gets an almost erotic thriller fromhandling it and as soon as it falls into Curtis's hands, we know he too will becorrupted.

In its more clunky moments, BulletBoy comes across like a public service film about the evils of firearms, aburningly topical issue in the UK. Thankfully, though, Dibb is toosophisticated a filmmaker to allow the movie to turn into a heavy-handedallegory.

The Hackney shown may beblighted by drugs, unemployment and violence, but Dibb has a refreshing knackof finding a measure of gallows humour in even the grimmest sequences. Thecomedy often comes from the characters' flailing attempts to prove theirmachismo. ('How many men go to jail, yeah, and have their mum come andpick them up afterwards - it's a bit embarrassing,' Ricky complains whenasked why he didn't allow his family to collect him from prison.)

He also balances thepredictable male world of Ricky and Wisdom with other more intimate viewpoints,including that of Curtis and his mother.

There is lyricism too. Dibbconstantly shows us Curtis, the still naive mother's boy, gazing in at theworld of Ricky and his friends. He makes excellent use of London's parks,canals and desolate, maze-like streets. He touches on such matters as povertyand police brutality, but this is not a Loach-style social drama. It's athriller with a very dark undertow.

Just occasionally, the filmlurches into lurid, Brian De Palma-like crime melodrama (witness the killing onthe deserted railway platform.) The performances are uneven and the tragicending seems just a little bit pat and contrived. Nonetheless, this is a veryvivid and inventive debut that suggests Dibb is a talent to watch.

Prod cos: Shine, BBC Films, UK Film Council
UK dist:
Int'l sales:
Portman Film
Exec prods:
David M Thompson,Paul Trijbits, Paul Hamann
Ruth Caleb, Marc Boothe
Saul Dibb, Catherine RJohnson
Marcel Zyskind
John Mister
Prod des:
Melanie Allen
Robert Del Naja, NeilDavidge
Main cast:
Asher Walters, LukeFraser, Claire Perkins, Leon Black