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The new British gangster movies would like to be as grave as The Long Good Friday or as tough as Get Carter. Instead they're just a whitewash of nostalgia. Danny Leigh thinks they've forgotten to connect with reality

Imagine that life was like the movies: a cogent narrative arc to underpin our every action; happy endings as routine; and, across the length of modern Britain, young men with indefinite accents and immaculate suits brandishing heavy firearms and cut-throat one-liners, with London once more a manor run by guns from pub backrooms.

Such is the current orthodoxy of UK film releases, dominated by doe-eyed gangster fetishists. The titles will be familiar to anyone with a passing interest in domestic cinema: Guy Ritchie's 1998 debut Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, surrogate godfather to the Kray-twins-fixated new wave, followed in short order by the generic procession of recent months - Rancid Aluminium, Circus, You're Dead..., Gangster No. 1, Fast Food and Love, Honour and Obey. Amid this deluge one or two titles have proved efficient (and in the case of Paul McGuigan's Gangster No. 1, a good deal more). Sadly, the rest are artistically bankrupt: their spectacle little more than cheap gimcracks, their text a litany of nostalgia-bound clichés.

And don't think it ends there. Still to come down the Soho pipeline are Ritchie's Lock, Stock follow-up Snatch (say it quietly and you can hear Ritchie sniggering), Sexy Beast, the faintly Shakespearean Shiner, and Fast Food director Stewart Sugg's second feature Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (say that quietly and you can hear Pauline Kael spinning on her retirement Eames). To paraphrase Henry Ford, it seems that in spring 2000 you can have any British film you like as long as it's wearing black and carrying a sawn-off.

So what convinced so many UK film producers that now is the time for the Brit gangster bonanza? Pop culture has pursued a consistent, ardent love affair with the myths of gangsterism ever since the popularisation of hip hop and gangsta rap in the mid 80s. Pimp, whore, junkie and criminal lowlife have been dominant rag-trade inspirations fuelled by 70s nostalgia for the outlandish styles of blaxploitation movies. And, of course, alongside that we have the reconfiguration of the crime movie as flip pulp fiction by Quentin Tarantino and his acolytes. Given the rise of the new lad consumer with his unashamed taste for testosterone-fuelled pleasures, the rise of the new Brit gangster film can be seen as an inevitable counterpart to the success of such UK men's magazines as Loaded and FHM.

But is there anything wrong with a desire to create a run of genre pictures in the UK? Why can't Lock, Stock and company be as valued and valuable as, say, Japanese yakuza films of the 50s and 60s? The gangster genre in its British variant has certainly been potent and the new boys' debt to two great Brit gangster films in particular - Mike Hodges' Get Carter (1971) and John MacKenzie's The Long Good Friday (1979) - is no cause for coyness. Rather it is displayed front and centre, constantly and explicitly. According to Ritchie, Lock, Stock - which gleefully plots the multiple downfall of various East End villains, whose bodies pile up like chips on a casino table as they doublecross one another over stolen goods, drugs and cash - was made in overt homage to MacKenzie's pitiless study of hubris, right down to its supporting role for veteran hardman P. H. Moriarty (cast in Friday as sanguinary goon Razors).

Not that today's desperado directors can't find room for more catholic influences. Among the frantic, careless rummage of intertextuality adorning these films like so many lapel badges, Scorsese pops up here, Abel Ferrara there, Tarantino pretty much everywhere. The great minds behind Fast Food and Circus, for instance, thought alike to the extent of lifting the same motif from Reservoir Dogs - the removal of a torture victim's ear. And the impossibly derivative Circus employs its quaintly sun-kissed Brighton location to tap into a lineage stretching back past Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa (1986) to the Boulting brothers' Brighton Rock (1947).

Yet time and again the new boys return to Hodges' and MacKenzie's twin genre shibboleths (with the occasional faux-LSD nod to Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg's Performance). The contemporary British gangster flick continues to bask in the gilded reflection of a mythical era between the mid 50s and the late 70s when Whitechapel caudillos gave orders and the world cowered in awe.

Back to reality

Except these days crime is not so simple. Get Carter drew much of its stringent authority from the fact that in 1971 gangland remained a valid narrative currency. Then the British underworld (even in as remote an outpost as Newcastle-upon-Tyne) was still plausibly a centralised, semi-feudal preserve of white, working-class Londoners whose headline-grabbing trades were bank robbery and extortion. The days of the big-time violent bank robbery are now gone, however, killed by electronic surveillance - which is where reality rears its homely, bromidic head: how can we buy into these expedient evocations of roguish Jack-the-Lads when what really remains of the venerable genuine article was last seen at the trial of the heinous Kenneth Noye? Likewise, the comic lustre of the new pretenders comes off in your hands when you recall that the best-known recent example of a gaggle of white twentysomething wideboys out for a laugh - in true Lock, Stock style - was the gang that killed Stephen Lawrence. Notwithstanding Ritchie's casting of Vas Blackwood to facilitate a spot of cod-blaxploitation imagery, the new generation is notable for its pallor: a throwback, to all intents and purposes, to the rose-tinted racism of The Long Good Friday's crimelord Harold Shand and his ilk.

Today the inheritors of the Kray legacy are more likely to be the Triad extortionists, the Yardies and the Turkish heroin dealers of Dalston, not the E2 boys who love their mums (or in the case of Lock, Stock, their dad). Such social changes are something America's film-makers have responded to robustly: at the same time as the Italian community has slipped into irrelevance within the East Coast underworld it's surely no coincidence that the most impressive US gangster movies have been African-American in origin - Hype Williams' dazzling Belly and the Hughes brothers' mordant Dead Presidents.

The British gangster movie has huddled in the shadow of its US counterpart since the time of Paul Muni and James Cagney. But the axis has now shifted: ceaseless transatlantic mimesis has given way to a proudly lairy flaunting of violence as a cockney vocation - as if Terence Stamp's rhyming-slanging ex-con in The Limey was a rallying cry for other film-makers to show the yanks how it's done. Which isn't such good news. While British film-makers have clung to the illusion of omnipotent domestic crime syndicates, American projects as diverse as HBO's long-form television drama The Sopranos and Jim Jarmusch's hip hop-tinted Ghost Dog The Way of the Samurai have demystified their underworld mise en scène. They have recognised the transformation of the Mafia (in art as in life, big brother to their limey compadres) over the last two decades: subject, like so many senescent national industries, to a deep-seated process of downsizing and realignment.

It's a sea change acknowledged clearly back in The Long Good Friday, where every frame is coloured by the sheer inevitability of Shand's demise, while the boomtown attitude to Docklands anticipates the bulldozer of Thatcherism and global economics. The tone of bloody elegy for a betrayed behemoth who'd outlived his time was no accident: it's the very fabric of the piece. MacKenzie's theme is less the death of a gangster than the death of traditional postwar gangsterism. As Shand is spirited away from the Savoy with a gun to his head in the closing scenes - outmuscled by the IRA and betrayed by his ambitious, university-educated heir - MacKenzie's point is that his domain will disappear with him. Something Ritchie, for all his fervent lip service, refuses to recognise.

The revolution MacKenzie captured was not just that affecting Shand, but also that under way among his East Coast Cosa Nostra contacts who increasingly favoured fresh-faced business-school graduates over middle-aged hardmen. What Jarmusch and Sopranos creator David Chase acknowledge is the reality that the likes of Shand, "the boy from Stepney", and his associate Charlie, "the kid from New Jersey", long ago semi-retired respectively to the Costa del Sol and Palm Beach.

The only one of the current wave of British films to attempt a measure of Chase's intellectual agility is Love, Honour and Obey. In their sentimental portrait of "gangsters in their slippers" (as star Jude Law would have it) co-directors Ray Burdis and Dominic Anciano aim to blend their enthusiasm for the hard-bitten tropes of Hodges and MacKenzie with the wry humanity of a Chase or a Jarmusch. But a vital ingredient is missing. The Sopranos not only confronts Mob screen lore, but makes it inspiring and playful: Tony and his cohorts deconstruct The Godfather with earnest intensity ("the third one, I'm not sure what happened"). Love, Honour and Obey, by contrast, simply tries to have its cake and eat it, adorning its script with would-be savvy interlocution ("It's just like watching a gangster film"), yet lionising its dodgy geezers in dingy boozers and having them participate in laughably implausible gun battles on the strangely deserted streets of north London.

How apposite for a film whose primary narrative emblem is karaoke, the art of plasticity and pretence. Because the prosaic truth is that in Britain gunfights remain as rare as guns. In London, the supposed epicentre of career criminality, armed hostilities are still recherché enough to make the evening news on an individual basis. Unlike on the big screen where Circus brims with displays of firepower and Love, Honour and Obey features a shoot-out roughly every 10 minutes, while in Fast Food one chooses a handgun from an array conveniently available at a sushi bar.

One thing Lock, Stock got half right was a central plot point about its witless heroes being lumbered with a seemingly useless antique rifle, yet the courage of its realist convictions foundered as soon as Ritchie felt the need for a bullet-strewn set piece. Or maybe that's just what happens when a director prostrates himself before a milieu he - by his own admission - knows nothing about. Compare Lock, Stock's adolescent hysteria with the measured brawn of The Long Good Friday, which was written by Barrie Keeffe, a former East End hack still able to recall the time Ronnie Kray showed him his piece in a Bethnal Green toilet.

Somewhere between the guns and the business practices, the modern British gangster movie wilfully abandoned authenticity in favour of mass-market entertainment values. But when you're mixing with the underworld, realism and entertainment become intertwined. Take Hodges' and MacKenzie's mutual grasp of richly corrosive dialogue. Harold Shand's farewell to his Mob associates ("The Mafia? I shit 'em") and Carter's innumerable bons mots ("eyes like piss holes in the snow" etc.) may be supremely quotable; they are also testament to their respective authors' fine-tuned mastery of the language of life. Now consider "It's like Greek tragedy without the yoghurt" (Circus) or "I think you'll find these crack niggers don't fuck about with knives" (Fast Food).

The same air of shoddy compromise infects the new generation's visual sensibility. The empathy for London that oozed from The Long Good Friday is nowhere to be found in Lock, Stock or Love, Honour and Obey. In Rancid Aluminium the texture of the capital is reduced to a shot of Big Ben and a track down the Portobello Road: a literal-minded picture postcard even Danny Boyle's Trainspotting had the guile to parody. Meanwhile Circus director Rob Walker's cosying up to the mythology of Brighton as cockney gangster playground (a town, as Keith Waterhouse put it, forever helping the police with their enquiries) perishes with his reluctance to transfer his gaze beyond pier, beach and Marina.

Gangster lite

Where Lock, Stock - steeped as it is in the diction of music videos and commercials - turns up the soundtrack in uncertain moments like a nervous party host, MacKenzie and Hodges nurtured a flinty, stripped-down aesthetic that recognised the importance of silence in cinematic grammar. The two wordless holds on Bob Hoskins' face which end The Long Good Friday were eloquent enough to be recycled in Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights and still look utterly audacious. The gangster flick, after all, documents an environment in which style - the glint of a blade, the shimmer of a mohair two-piece - has always been paramount, a lesson heeded by the impeccably natty Paul McGuigan in Gangster No. 1. Portraying the rise of a pathologically ruthless young gangster in the grimly swinging London of 1968, McGuigan's parade of Oswald Boateng suits, gold tiepins and handmade shoes makes for a film whose look perfectly reflects the dapper malignancy of its subject matter.

Yet what capsizes the new British gangster films more than anything is their attempt to reconcile thuggery with broad, crowd-pleasing comedy, to play the Tarantino cool card wherein black humour removes the need to engage fully with what's going on. Free of this obligation to play for laughs, Hodges and MacKenzie summon up scenes of almost Sirkian melodrama, streaked with a cold-eyed brutality born of their common realist foundation. (The Long Good Friday's nailing of a mobster to the floor, for instance, was a legendary party piece of the Kray twins.) Such a genuine sense of menace is rarely conjured in recent films (one exception being Harold Pinter's attempted seduction of a boy singer in Jez Butterworth's Mojo, a grotesque "tickle tickle" delivered without a pump-action in sight).

But notwithstanding Gangster No. 1's unnerving treatment of red-raw psychosis, the principal dramatic sticking point for the gangster new wave remains the cowardice of its characterisations. Seldom can a group of film-makers have been so obsessed with rendering their leading men as wholesome, commercially palatable nice guys. Circus, for instance, barters away all narrative coherence in the attempt to conjure up sufficient intrigue to keep the audience rooting for an incomparably bland John Hannah. By contrast, Harold Shand and Jack Carter were profoundly nasty pieces of work and their portraits all the more compelling for it.

The same airbrush logic obscures another hugely significant landmark of the gangland vista - the prevalence of homosexuality and homoeroticism, as glimpsed in Mojo, Performance, The Long Good Friday and now Gangster No. 1. To be fair, Love, Honour and Obey could claim one of its cast as openly camp, yet a marginal comic bit part flapping over wedding dresses is a pusillanimous gesture when a figure as pivotal as Ronnie Kray was - to quote Barrie Keeffe - "as legendary for his gayness as his violence". White, straight and basically cuddly: you couldn't wish for a more fallacious photofit of London's crime scene than that of Lock, Stock and its progeny.

To say so calls into question a pre-eminent goal of the mainstream British film industry: the creation of a functional UK star system where domestic celebrity is enough in and of itself to secure an audience. Which is where Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels came in, its success promoting Vinnie Jones from sports-page beserker to front-page icon. Now, two years on, barely a tabloid morning conference goes by without discussion of Jude Law and Sadie Frost, or - on a particularly slow news day - perhaps Dominic Anciano and his MTV-presenter companion Donna Air.

For the actors, the reward (at least theoretically) is a measure of the credibility Hoskins has traded off since he played Harold Shand. For the financiers, it seems any star will do as long as their presence guarantees a plug on TFI Friday. Law takes Love, Honour and Obey, Joseph Fiennes Rancid Aluminium, Rhys Ifans anything and everything - and a few novelty casting decisions (say, Sean Hughes in Fast Food or Denise Van Outen in Love, Honour and Obey) are thrown in to sway the floating punter. Even when the consequences threaten the integrity of the entire enterprise - witness Circus' torture scene being carried out by Brian Conley and Christopher Biggins - the temptation for the cash-strapped British producer will always be to go with what the public knows.

Meanwhile, intertwined with the lust for film stars is the industry's relentless search for its longstanding holy grail: a reliable genre that can travel, preferably to the US. Once Lock, Stock had pulled in £11.4 million at British box offices, followed by positive criticism and a modestly impressive $3.6 million take in the US, the rest was inevitable. From that moment the gangster pitch with a star like Jude Law attached has enjoyed an easier ride than, say, the likes of Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher. The relative commercial non-performance of Rancid Aluminium et al has yet to prove an effective deterrent.

The British have always loved the frisson of the underworld, whether expressed in the deification of the Krays, the felonious plotlines of the nation's favourite soap EastEnders or the continuing fascination with Michael Caine's performance in Get Carter. And now the new generation find themselves positioned beside the PR well of prevailing lad culture. Unctuous television presenter Chris Evans, for instance, has been vocal in his approbation of Love, Honour and Obey, while the big-selling men's magazines long ago entered into an arrangement of mutual benefit by mining the same unworldly demographic of 15- to 34-year-old white males. Then take into account the postmodern reinvention of Rat Pack mystique, wherein Law and chums play the fast-living maverick clique, and the media-friendliness of such gangland alumni as great train robber Bruce Reynolds and Kray protégé Dave Courtenay, and it's clear the ubiquity of the gangster new wave is no unhappy accident.

Whether it's healthy is another point entirely. Fuelling the wish-fulfilment fantasies of a generation seemingly emasculated by the slippery, unglamorous nature of modern British crime may be potentially lucrative, yet it clearly doesn't make for memorable film-making. And beyond the paucity of the Ritchie-wannabe mob's collective vision there remains something disturbingly queasy about a genre so intrinsically dependent on sophistry. As Caine recently complained, much of the British film industry remains a prep-school common room writ large. In this context the mockney-accented gunplay of the Lock, Stock era begins to look like easy-on-the-eye bourgeois pornography, while the vast bulk of violent crime remains - as ever - perpetrated by and on the working class.

Near the end of Gangster No. 1, perhaps the last honest British gangster movie, Malcolm McDowell's eponymous hoodlum stands in his Mayfair flat, full of the ghosts and relics of grimly swinging London, trying to goad his former boss David Thewlis into a reprise of his brutal past. Remembering the allure of the glamour and the violence, a note of derision enters Thewlis' voice as he finally responds: "What a load of old cobblers."

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012