Any director who titles his film “Hyena” is setting himself up for critical wisecracks about creative scavenging — and true enough, Gerard Johnson’s ultraviolent crooked-cop thriller wears its plethora of genre influences, from Nicolas Winding Refn to “The Sweeney,” prominently on its sleeve. What “Hyena” lacks in invention, however, it makes up for in technical bravado and geographical specificity, its vivid West London milieu coloring a stock story of a corrupt narcotics detective (the excellent Peter Ferdinando) whose chickens come home most bloodily to roost. A punchy but distinctly downbeat curtain-raiser for this year’s Edinburgh fest, Johnson’s stylish sophomore feature reps a commercial challenge theatrically — too oblique for the exploitation crowd, too grimy for upscale auds — but should continue to attract strong-stomached admirers in ancillary.
While frequently blunt in expression, Johnson’s script is never so literal as to directly articulate its title; the bottom-feeding metaphor is pretty self-evident in a story that finds lawmen and perpetrators interdependent in their thuggery, scrabbling for the moral low ground. The presence in the ensemble of two lead actors from Ben Wheatley’s “Kill List” arguably encourages some comparison between the directors’ respective brands of open-ended nihilism.
The ugly ethical dead end is a street the helmer knows well: “Tony,” his rough-hewn but striking 2009 debut, starred Ferdinando as a nebbishy welfare-state serial killer, and similarly demanded compromised sympathy at best from the audience. How willing viewers are to offer it will depend on their taste for Ferdinando’s seamy, sweat-stained performance as straggle-haired rebel cop Michael Logan, but he’s utterly convincing and commanding in a role that could have been played to no greater effect by a bigger star. In terms of actions and attitude, Logan is a character not a million miles removed from James McAvoy’s coke-addled policeman in last year’s “Filth.”
The film’s stunningly propulsive opening sequence swiftly establishes that we’re in a realm devoid of good guys, as Logan leads a task force team (the hyena’s pack, as it were) in a brutally unruly nightclub drug raid — the complete carnage of which is mercifully obscured by ultraviolet mist and a swarming score — before enjoying the spoils in a pub afterward. A high-functioning addict, Logan supplements his police career by investing heavily in a Turkish smuggling ring. It’s a scheme that goes grimly awry when his chief contact is hacked to pieces before his eyes by a pair of Albanian brothers with ruthless designs on the city’s drug trade; further investigation on Logan’s part proves that their outfit trafficks humans as freely as it does cocaine.
As he approaches one of their female captives, Ariana (Elisa Lasowski), to help him bust open the case, his department impedes his progress by assigning his former partner Knight (Stephen Graham) to head up the investigation; meanwhile, an internal inquiry led by venal, slick-suited colleague Taylor (Richard Dormer) threatens to uncover his misdeeds. As the strings are pulled tighter, the film moves increasingly away from urban realism and toward a heightened nightmare narrative — its violent setpieces growing ever splashier in their gratuitous excess — as nearly every involved party is revealed to be rotten in some way.
The exceptions are the film’s female characters, Ariana and Lisa (MyAnna Buring, pithy and underused), Logan’s tough-minded g.f., who are disappointingly defined by little beyond their dogged suffering. It’s regrettable that the film’s non-male and non-English characters are its least complex: “Hyena” does a fine job of portraying the thorny cultural tangle of Britain’s capital from the outside, but falls well short of the probing social heterogeneity of TV’s “The Wire.” Characterization across the board is where Johnson’s script could use some extra layering: Ferdinando is working hard to protect Logan from renegade-cop cliche, while much untapped drama simmers in his relationship with Knight.
Johnson’s filmmaking, however, takes no such short cuts, with sound, image and editing colluding to keep “Hyena” in a perpetual state of agitated panic. Technique often excitingly thwarts our genre expectations. We’re so used to contemporary cop thrillers being shot in macho metallics that the saturated, oily neons of d.p. Benjamin Kracun’s shimmering widescreen lensing never cease to stimulate; it’s a while since the London night has looked this witchily velvet-textured onscreen. The febrile electronic score by longstanding British new-wave act The The (aka Matt Johnson, the director’s brother) persistently surprises with its variations in intensity and sheer volume. There’s at least one other counterintuitive music cue in the form of Sylvester’s candied disco nugget “Do Ya Wanna Funk,” not the background listening you’d expect at a loutish gathering of off-duty London cops.