Like its ex-con-going-straight hero, "Man Dancin'" trips an uneasy line between a grungy Scottish crime drama and an evangelical pamphlet. Not a particularly pleasant way to spend two hours at the movies, this first feature by small-screen helmer Norman Stone is kept watchable by strong playing from its four male leads. Pic will waltz quickly into ancillary.

Like its ex-con-going-straight hero, “Man Dancin’” trips an uneasy line between a grungy Scottish crime drama and an evangelical pamphlet. Not a particularly pleasant way to spend two hours at the movies, this first feature by small-screen helmer Norman Stone is kept watchable by strong playing from its four male leads; but the relentlessly brutal atmosphere, stirred in with a wobbly subplot about our hero finding religion, finally sticks in the throat. On limited U.K. release Feb. 20, pic will waltz quickly into ancillary.

Paroled after nine years in a Belfast jail for gun-running, Scottish hard man Jimmy Kerrigan (Alex Ferns) returns to hometown Glasgow and immediately makes everyone very nervous. His former boss, Donnie McGlone (James Cosmo), and crooked cop “Pancho” Villers (Kenneth Cranham) both think he’s up to something, and keep a close eye on his activities.

But all Jimmy wants to do is go straight and move to Greece when his parole is up. When an Irish priest, Gabriel Flynn (Tom Georgeson), is appointed his parole officer, Jimmy gets drawn into an amateur church production of a Passion play. Meanwhile, he also plays Good Samaritan to his druggie younger brother, Terry (Cas Harkins), and an old friend, Maria (Jenny Foulds), who’s being abused by her husband, one of Donnie’s men.

Best part of the movie is the first act, as Jimmy returns home and is warily eyed by all the hard-knuckle bruisers he used to work with. Vets Cosmo and Cranham are aces as the psycho gang leader and corrupt cop who won’t tolerate having their cozy little arrangement disturbed in any way, especially by a former con turned goody-two-shoes.

But as the religious parallels grow, with Jimmy like some Glaswegian Christ figure helping anyone from hookers to the homeless, Stone’s script is pulled in two very different directions. Final reels are phony, and borderline silly.

Ferns, known for playing bad boy Trevor in U.K. soap “EastEnders,” makes a convincing lead, both physically and emotionally, though his acting range doesn’t compare to those of wrinkled vets like Cosmo, Cranham and Georgeson. Last brings welcome irony to the role of the priest. Rest of the cast ranges from OK to over-cooked, though Gerald Lepkowski makes a sympathetic late showing as one of Donnie’s lieutenants, and songwriter-singer Tam White lightens things up a shade as a street musician.

Though rarely explicit, pic’s violence has a dark, nasty edge, accentuated by Mike Fox’s wintry location lensing and the blowup from 16mm.

Man Dancin'

U.K.

Production

An Angel Film Partnership presentation, in association with Jerusalem Prods. and Saltire Films, of a 1A Films, Felstival Films production, in association with The Deo Gloria Trust, Vision Video, Scottish Screen National Lottery Fund. Produced by Ray Marshall. Executive producers, Peter Barber-Fleming, Norman Stone, Marshall. Co-executive producer, Christopher Gawor. Directed by Norman Stone. Screenplay, Sergio Casci, from an idea by Stone; additional material, Stone, Murray Watts.

Crew

Camera (color), Mike Fox; editor, Colin Goudie; music, Colin Towns; production designer, Ash Wilkinson; costume designer, Lindsey Davidson; sound (Dolby Digital), Tommy Hair; assistant director, Simon King. Reviewed at UGC Trocadero 3, London, Feb. 25, 2004. Running time: 113 MIN.

With

Alex Ferns, Tom Georgeson, Kenneth Cranham, James Cosmo, Jenny Foulds, Cas Harkins, Tam White, Stewart Porter, Gerald Lepkowski, Ron Donachie.

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