A solid Brit gangster film more in the old-school vein of “Get Carter” and “Mona Lisa” than the dog-on-hind-legs Guy Ritchie idiom, “Villain” provides a snug fit for Craig Fairbrass as a convict whose return to society naturally runs smack into familiar trouble. Title notwithstanding, our protagonist is an upstanding kind of tough guy — but the criminal world isn’t about to let him go straight. Actor Philip Barantini’s first directorial feature is nothing wildly original in content or style. Still, it punches both elements across with a satisfying low-key confidence, and does not shrink from occasionally letting things get pretty rough. Saban is releasing to U.S. on demand and via digital platforms on May 22.
We meet fiftysomething Eddie Franks (Fairbrass) the day he’s getting out of the joint after a stint of unknown, presumably lengthy duration. It’s clear from the way he’s treated by both the staff and his fellow inmates that he’s respected, whether due to his intimidating qualities or finer ones — he’s wished well, but also expected to return. Eddie, however, has other ideas. He’s determined to start afresh, resuming possession of the East End pub little brother Sean (screenwriter George Russo) has operated in his absence, classing up its somewhat decrepit act with a makeover. It doesn’t take him long, however, to discover that whatever income it’s generated has gone straight up the nose of Sean and his stripper girlfriend Rikki (Eloise Lovell Anderson).
Eddie’s lower to realize that there’s worse news: Sean is also seriously in hock to local thugs Roy (Robert Glenister) and Johnny (Tomi May), having mislaid a brick of goods they were letting him deal. He’s already gotten a first and last reprieve from execution, with time running out on that extension. Even cool-as-ice Eddie can figure out that his intended path forward on the straight-and-narrow is going to take a big detour before this situation can be put behind them, if it can.
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Resolving these difficulties requires considerable ingenuity, as well as an assist from Eddie’s old partner in crime Mike (Mark Monero), now a respectable married suburbanite. They’ll also imperil any hopes our hero had of reconciling with daughter Chloe (Izuka Hoyle), now a mother with her own domestic woes, and who initially wants nothing to do with him.
Russo and Greg Hall’s script is sound enough, springing a couple moderate later surprises to good effect, though to American ears, some dialogue may get lost in thick working-class accents. But the primary strengths here lie in Barantini’s handling and his strong cast, which bring a lot of no-nonsense conviction to material that might easily have translated as a bit second-hand.
“Villain” (which has no relation to the 1971 Brit gangster film of the same title, which gave Richard Burton his nastiest screen role) is brisk yet flavorful, gritty even when stylish, its occasional plot-logic leap smoothed over by a tone that deftly balances a resigned good humor with violent threat — a mix key to Eddie’s character. He refuses to assume a tragic grandeur, even as fate bends in that direction. When the modest hopes he has for a normal life are dashed, he applies himself to the rather grisly business of a forced alternative without batting an eye. (We learn little about his criminal past, but at one point it becomes very clear he’s had prior experience in disposing of corpses.)
Fairbrass communicates all this while seeming to do very little — like a large wild animal, Eddie’s stillness only underlines his readiness to pounce — while Russo is equally fine as Sean, who’s as fundamentally weak as his brother is strong. There isn’t a weak link among the supporting players, all of whom lend potentially stereotypical roles a convincingly lived-in feel.
The production is nicely handled on all other fronts, with particularly valuable contributions from DP Matthew Lewis’ selectively bold (but never ostentatious) compositions, Aimee Meek’s thoughtful production design, and an effectively restrained score by David Ridley and Aaron May.