A gritty and atmospheric gangland drama, with some smart twists, “Essex Boys” purrs along nicely for the first 75 minutes and then suffers a dramatic loss of balance from which it only belatedly recovers. Though roundly dismissed by local crix as a blah entry in the seemingly endless stream of British gangster pics, it’s a movie of quiet menace with a definite character of its own, recalling ’70s items like Michael Tuchner’s “Villain” in its evocation of a peculiarly English criminal nastiness. On current trends, however, only lukewarm biz looks likely.
Fictional story is inspired by the so-called “Rettendon Range Rover Murders,” in which three men were found shot dead in a car on a snowy night in Essex, a county due east of London. Essex carries a host of connotations that are almost impossible to convey to non-Brit audiences. The butt of jokes about its street-smart men and loose women, defiantly grounded and working-class, and home to many wealthy entrepreneurs with more money than taste, the county prides itself on a separate identity to London. Closest Yank equivalent to the difference in sensibilities would be New Jersey vs. New York City.
Picture is shown through the eyes of Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles), a young cabbie hired by gentleman drug smuggler Dyke (Tom Wilkinson) to be a driver for Jason Locke (Sean Bean), just out of stir after five years. Locke is an embittered time bomb who can throw acid in a man’s face or chuck a nightclub owner out a window without a second thought.
However, Locke takes a shine to young Billy, and the admiring Billy likes the fast money on offer in his new job, despite the reservations of his g.f., Nicole (Amelia Lowdell). Locke, meanwhile, is encouraged by his clever wife, Lisa (Alex Kingston, from “ER”), to call in the favor Dyke owes him from going to prison.
Unwillingly, Dyke arranges a shipment of Ecstasy tablets for Locke, but the drugs are rogue, hospitalizing scores of clubbers and almost killing Locke himself. His reputation ruined, Locke plans his revenge on Dyke who, unknown to him, has become Lisa’s lover and is also planning Locke’s terminal demise.
Grainily shot, sparingly dialogued, and largely set in the bleak, wintry Essex landscape, the movie has a very different feel to London gangland pix, with a clammy menace which sticks to the ribs. However, as the yarn becomes progressively labyrinthine, with everyone double-crossing everyone else, the impressive atmosphere of the first half recedes in the face of sheer plot mechanics. And though things recover with a final twist, the movie as a whole never fully rights itself from the loss of one of the main thesps three-quarters of the way through.
Bean, one of Blighty’s most undervalued actors, is excellent as the psychopathic Locke, bringing a physical and psychological charge to his role that anchors the movie. Wilkinson takes a while to establish a presence but matures slowly as a villain of disarming ruthlessness.
Perfs in general are spot-on, with Kingston well-cast as an Essex villain’s wife who’s as tough and smart as the boys. Creed-Miles, as the lad first enamored, then disillusioned by criminal celebrity, holds his own among the experienced cast. Overall, pic has a somewhat TV look — but in this case it’s not detrimental to the subject matter.