Yardie: Hardly, by Alexander Miller
“When actors direct.” Say it with a slightly emphatic tone and it can sound like a schlocky Fox reality show, like When Planes Go Down or When Bears Attack. Some get the vapors when they hear an actor is making the heroic dive behind the camera. Sometimes a performer takes their experiences and we can add a name to the long list of actor/director crossover artists (Clooney, Jolie, Beatty, etc.). Of course, this isn’t always the case.
Now, it’s silly to feel like an artist “owes” you something (it’s that line of thinking that makes fan culture so annoying and social media a veritable tar pit to navigate). So, take Idris Elba, a talented actor whose artistic instincts are dead on and seems naturally drawn to compelling material. It doesn’t feel like he owes anyone anything if he jumps into the director’s chair. But given his body of work, it would be fair to expect that Elba could exercise some creative intuition and use some of the experience garnered throughout a continuously prosperous career and apply that to his direction. Well, with Yardie the short answer is no, there isn’t much going on in terms of originality, tone or style. Yardie has some clout due to the fact that its story is based on Victor Headly’s novel of the same name. Elba confirmed that his adaptation would be more of a consolidated encapsulation of the book’s narrative. Regardless, the film’s story of a good guy faced with circumstances and the inherent rise-and-fall gangster story is, well, not that intriguing.
Yardie starts off in the backlots of Kingston, Jamaica, It’s a sunny, exciting place to be in the 1970s but there’s a gang war raging between two factions. What they’re fighting over is anyone’s guess. I’d assume drugs, turf, power, maybe bootleg Disney merchandise?
In any case, our young protagonist, D, has an older brother, Jerry Dread, who brings peace to the neighborhood. He spins some records and unites the ganglords through the power of music until he’s shot.
This seemingly motiveless murder deeply wounds D, who, having seen his brother murdered in front of him as a child, carries the thirst for revenge into his adult life. Taken under the wing of King Fox, a crime lord who looks after D as an adult, whose wife and child are estranged in England. King Fox decides that a better life awaits D in London. Also, he needs someone to be a coke mule for his partner Rico.
This is when Yardie should pick up steam but it’s actually the point where it starts to show some cracks. D makes it to England, meets with Rico (played by Stephen Graham), with whom he has a tete-a-tete. A routine drug handoff turns sour. D flees with the dope with an enraged sociopathic drug lord on his tail and he’s been away for less than a day. Graham brings an expected energy to the film and his character is a decimal more interesting than your stock “gun-toting psycho.” Our boy D is touted as an altruist but he comes off as reckless and he’s a difficult guy to root for. While he’s immersed in a world of crime, he’s also fueled by avenging those responsible for his slain brother (who periodically appears as a clunky apparition). D’s often faced with making tough decisions but he seems bent on making the hard road harder.
Yardie stumbles for a few reasons. Its protagonist is presented as a decent but conflicted man who’s haunted by his past and tormented by an inescapable culture of violence. Usual gangster crime stuff. But the film never engages us with any of the cultural or social ramifications those films often examine. D’s motivations are mostly personal and his driving desire for revenge loses momentum. After a few turns and beats, the movie starts feeling flat-footed and laborious.
Unlike the more memorable gangster stories, Yardie doesn’t offer some deeper context. The film is nothing more than a lukewarm crime flick with some decent tunes along the way. Plus, you’d think with a title as evocative as Yardie there’d be some insight to its derivations or at least a more punchy tone.
While Idris Elba’s direction is technically fluent, creatively there’s nothing more to Yardie than a superficially realized delivery of a story that feels inconsequential.
Yardie has the dressing of a hard-hitting biographical gangster saga but it’s a consolidated screen rendition of a popular crime novel and the final product is contrived and uninspired. It’s hard to imagine it issued from a talented player such as Elba.