Dir: Julian Gilbey. UK. 2007. 120mins tbc
Goodfellas comes to Essex in Julian Gilbey's gangster thriller Rise Of The Footsoldier. Luridly violent, full of macho posturing and often mired in cliche, the film nonetheless has an epic sweep and relentless narrative drive that show Gilbey is more than just another lightweight Scorsese imitator. He possesses visual flair of his own as well as an ability to tell a complicated story in a compelling and flamboyant way.
If Gilbey and his team sometimes trip over with Footsoldier, at least they show ambition. It takes a certain gumption to make a full-scale crime epic with a big cast on such small resources - and for that, at least, they should be applauded.
Released by Optimum Releasing in the UK in late summer (Aug 31), Footsoldier will be looking to march in the tracks led by such other bruising Brit lad films as Football Factory, Outlaw (which recently topped UK DVD charts) and, to a lesser extent, This Is England. Whatever its performance theatrically, it should enjoy a robust life on ancillary at home.
A strong UK showing may help sales agents and producers Carnaby International drum up some international interest, but the lack of recognisable star names and the very British settings and characters suggest that the film's real appeal will remain with local audiences.
Footsoldier is based on the same real-life events that inspired an earlier British gangster film, Essex Boys, namely the triple murder of three drug dealers at a remote farm in Essex, eastern England, in the mid-1990s. Gilbey and his co-writer (and brother) William Gilbey use this killings to bookend the movie.
The film opens with gruesome high-angle footage of the 'footsoldier' Carlton Leach (Hartnett) identifying the corpses, then tells the embroiled story of how he subsequently became involved with such low-lifes.
There are drawbacks with this approach. Although Leach's voice-over (clearly modelled on that of Ray Liotta in Goodfellas) tells us that the killings marked 'the end of an era,' some audiences may be puzzled by the foregrounding of an event with which the main protagonist of the movie is not directly involved. It adds to the confusion that so many doubts remain over who committed the Essex murders. (The two men convicted continue to deny their responsibility.)
Rather Footsoldier is primarily about Leach and his rise from football hooliganism to nightclub bouncer and finally fully fledged gangster. Taking their cue from Goodfellas, the film-makers don't just concentrate on the big, violent set-pieces, but also try to show the everyday life of the thug. Alongside Leach's early forays into football violence and his beginnings as a nightclub doorman, we see footage of his domestic life.
Gilbey has an eye for comic contrasts - for instance, the would-be gangster Leach is shown guzzling down baby food because his bodybuilding steroids give him a ferocious appetite. In the rave and acid house era, his machismo is undermined when he takes ecstasy and loses that sense of hostility to the outside world that every self-respecting hardman needs.
Certain sequences - for example, the pitched battle with the Manchester United football fans or the ultra-violent confrontation between rival fans on the London Underground train system - will seem familiar to anyone who has seen either Football Factory or Green Street (known as Green Street Hooligans in the US).
Even so, Gilbey has a knack for choreographing set-pieces. He deals effectively with the more intimate scenes - for instance, Leach turning violently on his wife in a steroid-influenced fury. He also keeps the story rattling along at such a clip that there is no time to dwell on the contrivances.
That said, certain plot lines turn into dead-ends. For instance, midway through the film, Gilbey goes to great lengths to depict the bad feeling between Leach's heavies and an ultra-ruthless Turkish gang. Just when we expect a full-blown gang war to begin, Leach suddenly decides not to confront so powerful an enemy and the narrative temporarily stalls. The title also hints at a tension that the film can't quite resolve; Gilbey isn't sure whether Leach is the leader, the hero shaping the action, or the footsoldier, the paid muscle observing it.
Most of the protagonists fall on the repugnant side, lacking the charisma and charm of, say, Liotta and Robert De Niro's characters in Goodfellas. Hartnett makes a stolid lead. Nonetheless, characterisation is vivid and Gilbey certainly succeeds in showing the mobsters' capacity for violence and intimidation as well as their vanity.
There are colourful character turns from Terry Stone as the mop-headed, buffoonish but very intimidating Tony Tucker and from Craig Fairbrass as the psychopathic Pat Tate.
Production values are impressive given the scale of what Gilbey is trying to achieve, and he clearly wanted to avoid the ironic, tongue-in-cheek humour of British gangster films in the Guy Ritchie mould. Instead, he aims for a tougher, more realistic approach. Certain scenes are almost comically dour.
Even so, the stylisation is obvious. With its extravagant sound editing during the fight sequences (in which every blow landed makes a sickening thud), slow motion, speculative scenes imagining what really happened that fateful day in December 1995 and nostalgic voice over, this isn't exactly a verite-style recreation of the events it depicts. Make-up and effects work is striking: the filmmakers show faces and bodies shot at point blank.