As rough and singleminded as the villains and antiheroes who populate it, Brit vigilante drama “Outlaw” is a fist in the face of politically correct, “liberal” cinema. Unashamedly provocative, and often repellently violent, this fourth outing by maverick writer-director Nick Love (“The Business”) recalls socially confrontational movies of the ’70s like “Scum” that long ago disappeared from the U.K. movie landscape. Much in the mold of Love’s soccer-hooligan drama “The Football Factory,” “Outlaw” looks likely to follow the same U.K. business graph — minimal theatrical, massive DVD sales — with scant biz beyond Blighty.
Pic directly addresses the “yob” (ruffian) culture which has taken over large sections of contempo British society and which, in interviews, Love has directly attributed to Tony Blair’s Labor government. Though there’s no disputing the screwed values that “Outlaw” targets, it’s a moot point whether the movie surfs the problem, as did “Football,” or really engages with it.
Both the pic’s power and its problems stem from Love deliberately taking no moral position nor offering any solutions; he gives his audience what it wants at a gut level and doesn’t wimp out at the end. Coming from a director who’s always distanced himself from the Brit filmmaking establishment, it’s a pic by an outsider about outsiders. Simply in that respect, it’s a bracing, if hardly likable, accomplishment.
Opening sets a cold, angry tone, as Gene Dekker (Danny Dyer) is beaten up by thugs on the way to his wedding and later hunts down his assailants. Separately, battle-scarred paratrooper Sgt. Danny Bryant (Sean Bean) returns from Iraq to find his wife with a new man and the neighborhood populated by leering layabouts.
Meanwhile, Cedric Munroe (Lennie James), a black lawyer leading the prosecution of London gangster Terence Manning (Rob Fry), is first threatened in a washroom by one of Manning’s heavies (Dave Legeno) and later hears his pregnant wife has been stabbed. Munroe’s driver/bodyguard, Walter (Bob Hoskins), is quietly attentive on the sidelines.
As it maneuvers the characters into docking position during the first act, the script is sometimes a bumpy ride as it constructs personal motivations and discusses the “breakdown” of justice. Munroe, especially, is an obvious device as the doubter of the group.
Things go more smoothly when the pic concentrates on individuals rather than issues, and the strong ensemble starts to strike sparks. Catalyst to the vigilante band forming is a creepy hotel security officer (Sean Harris), an old school friend of Dekker, who describes him simply as a “nutter.” Harris’ perf, the lowest-key in the movie, ends up being the scariest.
Again shooting in widescreen DV, but with a deliberately wintry, colorless palette in the 35mm transfer, Love stirs considerable tension in the second half as the hunters turn hunted, by the criminals they’re targeting as well as the regular forces of law and order. Sense of unease is heightened by the jittery camera, which is at first distracting but later hardly noticeable; more cliche is the “shuttering” effect that amps up the scenes of violence, plus the featureless electronic wash of David Julyan’s score.
Thesps grow in their roles as the story proceeds, with Bean very believable as the disillusioned paratrooper; ditto the always interesting Dyer, a Love regular, as a conflicted everyman. In an initially supporting role, Hoskins comes into his own with a powerful speech at the halfway mark, with his ex-cop acting as a kind of binding agent on the whole material. Casting of villains, such as Fry and Legeno, is uncannily real.