A bunch of Cockney toughs take the low road to hell in “Hard Men,” a game attempt at a British Tarantino that has its moments but is deep-sixed by lackluster dialogue and uninvolving characters. This first feature by French-born, London-based director J.K. Amalou can’t be faulted for ambition but is more of a stylistic calling card than a fully realized work. Smart marketing will be needed to make this one catch on.
Impressive opening has the titular trio, led by the handsome, assured Tone (Vincent Regan), in a standoff when collecting from a shady businessman, Mr. Ross (Ken Campbell). At that precise moment, Tone’s cell phone rings with the news from his ex-g.f. that he’s a father. The standoff ends with Ross and his henchmen dead in a hail of bullets, and Tone a changed man, determined to quit the business and settle down into family life.
There are only two problems: breaking the news to his longtime colleagues – the hophead Speed (Lee Ross) and surly, envious Bear (Ross Boatman) – and avoiding the contract put out on him by his ruthless boss, Pops Den (former gangster “Mad” Frankie Fraser), who’s angry that Tone has blown away one of his best clients. Pops issues the order that he wants Tone’s right hand on his desk by 9 a.m. the next day.
Meanwhile, the trio set out on a klutzy ride through London’s nocturnal underbelly, holding up a nightclub (the wrong one, they discover), picking up women (who turn out to be transvestites) and laying low in a suburban cathouse (where one of the hookers blows her brains out).
The irony is that, while Tone is dreaming of nappies and singing to his kid, it’s his own colleagues who have been entrusted with Pops’ contract to off him. Just to make sure Speed and Bear don’t bottle out, Pops has the trio trailed by two other hoods. The resolution to all of this is predictably blood-drenched.
Pic never lives up to the promise of its offbeat opening, which mixes black comedy, off-the-wall fantasy elements and striking photography into a potentially interesting whole. Writer-director Amalou manages nice touches of comedy thereafter – especially in an edgy meeting between the trio and the two trailing hoods in a Turkish diner – but it’s the only element in the script that doesn’t run out of gas as the movie progresses. The relentlessly four-letter dialogue strives for a gutter poetry beyond its reach, and the incidents of violence seem increasingly like desperate attempts to hold the audience’s attention, rather than springing naturally from situations. Closing reels are almost cartoony in their excess, and the final plot twists are nothing special.
As Tone, the Irish-born Regan, who’s mostly worked in legit and TV, has the makings of a real screen presence. In showier roles as his two acolytes, Ross and Boatman make more of an impression, though their roles, like Regan’s, are underwritten. Fraser chillingly brings a lifetime’s experience of real villainy to the part of Pops. The several other smaller roles are all OK.
Film has a consistently interesting look on an obviously meager budget, with atmospheric use of grungy London locations and much use of close-ups in dialogue sequences. The latter, unfortunately, only serve to emphasize the script’s weaknesses.