Hollywood heavyweight Idris Elba finally stepping behind the camera, and the promise of Jamaican gangsters tearing up East London in the 1980s – on paper, Yardie feels worth every ounce of buzz it received through production.
A Caribbean Goodfellas with whispers of City of God, Guy Ritchie, and Elba’s own Hackney-born roots, its exciting new blood alone should make it a straight win right off-the-bat. So why instead, does the whole experience of sitting through it feel nothing less than exhausting?
There’s no denying that Yardie has its heart in the right place. Starting in the slums of Jamaica’s crime-ridden Kingston, before shifting to a very Yorkshire-looking take on the East End of the 80s, Elba pads out a pretty straight-forward revenge-saga. A young boy, corrupted by the murder of his brother, hits a criminal path and finds his life spiralling into that classic cocktail of drug running and old school gang-warfare. We’ve seen it all before (even Yardie itself is based on a book of the same name). The early Jamaican spin does add some extra flair, and there’s a certain charm to seeing gentrified London taken back to its rough-and-ready roots. But everything from the film’s pacing, to its characters, to even just its basic human dialogue falls totally flat, making for not much more than an often pretty, but very much empty, shell.
And the bulk of the film’s problems seem to stem from it’s thoroughly uninvolved lead. So much of Yardie ends up framed as a character study, but Aml Ameen’s wonky Dennis isn’t even the least bit interesting. He slips through all the paint-by-numbers beats of the troubled gangster trying to turn himself legit (the estranged family, the gang leader father-figure), without any real defining features, other than an apparent blood-oath to avenge his pacifist brother, that even then he only really seems to dip in and out of. A plodding narration pretty much hits us over the head with every common fact we need to know (“My name is Dennis”, “he was like a father to me” etc., etc.), but still plot points and serious emotional reveals seem lost; it’s often a real struggle to understand what Dennis is doing, let alone why he’s doing it, or how it makes him any stronger as a character.
To Elba’s credit he does fill in the background well. His sense of place is tremendously realised on both sides of the Atlantic, and the film’s soundtrack is a properly tuned lesson in the history of reggae. The early Jamaican action definitely holds together the best, and the violence in this first act has a certain weight to it that sadly doesn’t really carry forward. The deeper into Dennis’s world he gets, the less of a hold Elba seems to have on the what and why of his main character’s story, and Ameen’s less-than-enthusiastic performance really doesn’t help to soften the blow either.
Ironically, Yardie could’ve done with some of Elba’s own trademark charisma in-front of the camera, as well as behind it. Despite some decent weight early on, it’s a frustratingly uninspired stab at an otherwise unexplored bit of gangland history, never managing to make its mark as an effective thriller or character piece. It was an exciting prospect, and Elba definitely started in the right place, with a personal story and not too many bells and whistles. But the finished film sadly doesn’t even get the fundamentals right.
As a debut it’s far from the worst, and certainly has some watchable qualities, but Yardie isn’t even remotely the dramatic home-run it should’ve been for everyone behind it.
Yardie was screened as part of the Sundance Film Festival: London.