Dir: Mel Smith. UK. 2001. 86 mins.
The film's title implies a commercially canny mix of grrrl power and gangsters, but Mel Smith's first directorial outing since Bean (1997) is unlikely to replicate its success, or that of writer Kim Fuller's last film, SpiceWorld (1996). Here, males will be turned off by the silliness of the crime strand (although Minnie Driver in a nurse's uniform should prove an attraction for some, while co-star Mary McCormack is also easy on the eye). Its primary appeal is to young women, and astute counter-programming could squeeze this modest comedy into a niche between the summer juggernauts.
However its brightest prospects are in ancillary markets. In a confusingly staged prologue, a lookout at a bank robbery (Danny Dyer) is accidentally recorded talking on his mobile phone by Ray, a computer geek who tunes into private conversations on his radio scanner. Ray then exasperates his nurse girlfriend (Driver) by forgetting her birthday, whereupon she dumps him and goes out on the town with her best friend, a struggling American actress (McCormack).
Afterwards the drunken pair listen to the recording of the heist, complete with mobile phone number, on Ray's equipment, but when they try to report the crime at the local police station - chaotically besieged by football hooligans, hookers and drug pushers - they are sent on their way. On an impulse, the girls decide to shake down the robbers for a share of the loot.
They phone the lookout with a blackmail threat, but are double-crossed at a rendezvous to collect the money and, when the rest of the gang - who turn out to be as incompetent as they are vicious - refuse to take them seriously, raise the stakes with a barrage of increasingly skilful break-ins, shoot-outs and confidence tricks. Meanwhile a pair of equally ineffectual policemen set out belatedly on their tail.
The Cockney hoods are drawn with very broad strokes as deliberate stereotypes ("He's a scumbag lowlife criminal and he lives in the East End - is that compulsory'" moans one character). They're comically fascinated by movie images of the underworld, and trying, with no great success, to live up to the myth. It is an amusing conceit, and suggests how the women, by mimicking these cliches are able to fool them so easily at their own game. But it also results in some skimpy characterisations: Gambon contributes a particularly queasy cameo as the gang's effete homosexual Mr Big. Other male roles such as Driver's boyfriend, or the policemen trying to sell his flat who assesses every crime scene in terms of its damage to local property values, remain negligible.
Despite its brisk running time, High Heels And Low Lifes takes a while to gather momentum, but the film does eventually pick up steam as the girls move centre stage. Their scheming gives Driver's pliant, anxious-to-please nurse a crash course in assertiveness and McCormack the chance finally to deliver the performance of her career. Fuller has a knack of writing sassy dialogue for women and both the chemistry between the two friends and their distinctive clothing styles are nicely delineated.
As with SpiceWorld, the film has a neo-Sixties feel, emphasised by the crime caper plotting, the London locations (mainly in Hackney and still modish Hoxton), the bright colours and lighting and Smith's sporadic, slightly gimmicky use of split screen.
Prod cos: Buena Vista, Fragile Films
UK dist: Buena Vista (UK)
Prods: Uri Fruchtmann, Barnaby Thompson
Scr: Kim Fuller
Cinematography: Steven Chivers
Prod des: Michael Pickwoad
Ed: Christopher Blunden
Music: Charlie Mole
Main cast: Minnie Driver, Mary McCormack, Danny Dyer, Kevin McNally, Michael Gambon.