A running confectionery metaphor adds artificial coloring but little discernible flavor to “Hard Boiled Sweets,” a trim debut feature from writer-director David L.G. Hughes that can’t decide whether to update or parody the well-worn British gangster-pic template, and winds up mostly conforming to it. Though an enthusiastic cast and a somewhat tacked-on feminist twist reduce the sour aftertaste, the tone isn’t aggressive or witty enough to distinguish this from umpteen other Guy Ritchie knockoffs. Locally, the pic is likelier to find fans in ancillary; given the genre’s past its peak and no star names sweeten the deal, offshore prospects are minimal.
The title alone, a British term for hard candy, is likely to confuse international auds. They ought to recognize at least half its pun value, but “hard-boiled” is hardly the term for this would-be knockabout tale of sundry pimps, hookers and Cockney thugs battling for the old-fashioned prize of a briefcase containing a million pounds. Even Blighty viewers, meanwhile, will be bemused by Hughes’ protracted scene-setting device by which intertitles name each character after a classic English sweet, complete with groan-inducing reasoning. Buxom gangster moll Porsche (Ty Glaser), for example, is introduced as the Sherbet Lemon — “the sweet that’s really tasty and tart” — and things get sillier from there.
Hughes takes so long to deal these contrived cards that one expects the ensuing narrative to be considerably knottier than it is, but many players in this broad ensemble are merely red herrings. Puppyish, handsome ex-con Johnny (Scot Williams), no sooner out of the clink than roped into a scheme to nab the aforementioned cash from sleazy mob boss Eddie (Paul Freeman), appears at the outset to be the putative protagonist, but thanklessly recedes from view as the narrative shifts to a standoff between Eddie and rival silver-haired mobster Jimmy (Peter Wight), before Eddie’s g.f., Porsche, hitherto mere arm-candy, takes a more active role in the proceedings.
It’s debatable to what extent the script, expanded from Hughes’ 2007 short “A Girl and a Gun,” has strategized these structural lurches. Similarly, it’s hard to tell how much self-awareness tints the pic’s over-mannered dialogue. Lines like “He just came by a stinky-winky funk” may or may not be poking fun at this particular subgenre’s much-imitated Ritchie-speak, but they’re execrable either way.
Dilapidated British beach resort Southend-on-Sea at least provides a more evocative backdrop for these derivative goings-on than London’s East End would. Hughes clearly knows this, peppering a modest, technically adequate production with distractingly ostentatious aerial shots of the pier in all its faded electric glory. Such stylish details, including a delightful Saul Bass-like opening credit sequence by Anders Bundgaard, hint at better things to come from the helmer, hopefully in less exhaustively excavated genre territory.