Shades of “Reservoir Dogs” meet the spirit of “The Long Good Friday” in “Face ,” a tenebrous Cockney gangster yarn whose weaknesses are largely offset by terrific perfs and a script that’s more than just a collection of four-letter words. But while pic does much to rehabilitate the rep of British director Antonia Bird (“Safe,” “Priest”) after her lackluster U.S. outing, “Mad Love,” its moderate B.O. chances look to be surer in Europe than North America, where the black comedy and even blacker tone may not strike a receptive chord with auds.
Loosely based on a tale by Belfast-born writer Ronan Bennett published in the anthology “London Short Stories,” script follows five hoods of various vintages pre- and post-heist. Closest bound are Ray (Robert Carlyle), a onetime political idealist turned hard-nosed gangster, and Dave (Ray Winstone), an older, more traditional East End villain. First seen strong-arming some cash out of a guy (Irish politician Gerry Conlon, cameoing), the pair have in mind a major holdup that will set them up for some time — robbing a West London security firm of $ 3 million.
Also in the group is the simpleminded Stevie (Steven Waddington), a former cellmate of Ray; Jason (Damon Albarn), nephew of aging gangster Sonny (Peter Vaughan); and Julian (Philip Davis), a seriously crazed psychopath who has ambitions beyond holdups.
In a pacey, adrenaline-drenched sequence, the team raids the security firm’s depot. But back at their warehouse hideout things soon start to fracture: The haul is only $ 500,000, a long way short of a retirement fund, and Julian tries (unsuccessfully) to increase his cut at gunpoint.
It’s also soon clear that there is a traitor in the group. Dave arrives at Ray’s place bleeding from an attack and saying his share was stolen, and Ray and Stevie’s cuts have also disappeared. When the traitor is finally unmasked, the trail to the missing loot leads, of all places, to a police station, where the remaining members of the gang attempt their riskiest heist of all.
Though the movie trades on the same tough, Cockney gangland atmosphere of pics like “Villain” and “The Long Good Friday,” there’s a highly contempo edge to “Face” in the breakdown of traditional East End hoodlum codes and the emergence of a new generation with no ideals and only quick money in their sights. Ray’s background as a political idealist is thinly sketched and never rings true; better is the gruff irony of the older Dave and Julian, who mourn the passing of the old ways in one breath as they calmly blow or beat the bejesus out of a fellow human being in another.
Pic never stands still for long, and hardly has time to pay more than lip service to some of its supporting characters. (Vaughan’s wily old gangster and Lena Headey’s girlfriend of Ray are among the casualties here.) Ellipses in the script also leave some characters unexplained and their roles vague. But sustaining the movie through all its changes of tone is Bennett’s dialogue, with its strain of dry, London working-class humor, and the playing of the main leads.
The linguistically chameleon Carlyle (actually a Scot), last seen sporting a northern English accent in “The Full Monty,” here slips into perfect Cockney tones and mannerisms as the cynical, money-driven Ray, in a perf that’s both confident and attention-grabbing. Lower-key, but exactly catching the menace behind East End matiness, is Winstone, assured and very different from his foul-mouthed wife abuser in Gary Oldman’s “Nil by Mouth.” Coming through strongly in the second half is Davis as the mad but often very funny Julian.
Waddington is also notable in the quirky role of Ray’s dippy buddy Stevie. Albarn, vocalist with pop group Blur, has an almost nothing part, and the women — including the talented Headey — hardly register in pic’s male universe. The upbeat finale, in which Headey figures, feels forced as a result.
Though the movie sometimes has a TV look, tech credits are good on a clearly tight $ 3.7 million budget, with Fred Tammes’ lensing fluid and making resonant use of Stygian blacks in print caught. Copious music adds pace and atmosphere, and editing is tight and to the point. London accents, though flavorsome, will present few problems to North American auds, in part due to the clear soundtrack , which never favors effects over dialogue. Pic’s title is underworld slang for a gangster.