Movie Review: LONDON BOULEVARD May Be a Mess, But It's a Glorious Mess

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With his directorial debut, London Boulevard, Academy Award-winning screenwriter William Monahan (of The Departed fame) has created a one-of-a-kind failure, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.  This isn’t just a bad movie; anyone can make a bad movie.  This is a fiasco, where moments of wonderful characterization and creative invention exist alongside equal measures of thudding, awful misconception.  I’m reminded of Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch or Francis Ford Coppola’s One from the Heart or Steven Spielberg’s 1941 or Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York—Monahan is in good company, since only a genius could make something this…wrong.

For thirty minutes or so, Monahan doesn’t let his freak flag fly, and you could be forgiven for assuming much more modest intentions on his part—the director introduces us to Mitchel (Colin Farrell), an ex-con desperate to stay out of prison.  However, like every gangster movie known to man, just when Mitchel thinks he’s out, they keep pulling him back in, and he finds himself avoiding the influence of both a bent copper (Eddie Marsan) and his unstable boyhood chum Billy (Ben Chaplin, riffing on 1970’s De Niro and not doing a half-bad job of it).

It’s Mean Streets meets Carlito’s Way, but Monahan keeps things lively enough so the similarities don’t matter.  No one writes sardonic-threatening tough-guy speak better than him (it’s a pleasure to hear Farrell growl at Chaplin or at practiced screen baddies like Marsan and Stephen Graham), and he and cinematographer Chris Menges give the picture a hazy, Technicolor sheen—London Boulevard takes place in the present-day, but the stylized language and visuals come straight from the 1969 version of The Italian Job.

Most importantly, Farrell is brilliant.  He brings so much skill to the part that you never doubt his commitment to staying clean, even though he demonstrates a facility for efficient, brutal violence (he has a “destroys goombah’s face with a glass mug” scene that rivals a similar moment in The Departed for queasy intensity).

Had the film kept it simple and stayed the course, you’d have an unassuming-but-auspicious slice of British thuggery that might rival Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty for Me and Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone in the “Former actor/writer/producer/whatever directs first movie” category.

But then London Boulevard goes off the rails, and my oh my, what a mess.

This simple caper turns out to be anything but, and Monahan shows his true colors.  He got the last word on the gangster movie with The Departed, he redefined what a swords-and-sandals Hollywood epic could be with his Kingdom of Heaven script—of course his ambitions exceed simple crime movie pastiche!—and so London Boulevard is Monahan’s penny dreadful synthesis of British moviemaking’s last sixty years.

Mean Streets and Carlito’s Way?  Tip of the iceberg.  Monahan throws in some kitchen-sink melodrama, and all the better to depict Farrell and his self-destructive sister’s fraught relationship (Anna Friel plays Said Sister, in a boozy, profane turn that should shock her “Pushing Daisies” fans).  Through this thread, we see Friel’s off-again, on-again romance with Sanjeev Bhaskar’s sweetheart doctor, and suddenly the film has the texture of a Stephen Frears culture-clash comedy like My Beautiful Laundrette.  A subplot surrounding Farrell’s quest for revenge against the punks who murdered his homeless mentor/father/uncle/former criminal partner (Monahan leaves the specifics frustratingly unclear) pulls the movie out from lighthearted Italian Job thrills and into more menacing Get Carter (the original) territory.

There’s Ray Winstone’s flamboyant, Cockney crime boss—shades of Guy Ritchie’s hyperkinetic crime cinema—costume and set design that evokes the swinging malaise of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, a personal chauffeur (David Thewlis) whose constant chemical inebriation and sardonic asides could have come straight from Withnail and I, and, if that weren’t enough (oh, but it is), Monahan throws in a doomed tryst between Farrell and Keira Knightley’s reclusive movie star that recalls no less auspicious a source than the William Holden-Gloria Swanson affair in Sunset Boulevard.

That last reference isn’t British, I know, but I guess Monahan didn’t want to risk emptying the tank.

None of this gels together—how could it?  The Blu-ray has a nice behind-the-scenes documentary that talks about how Monahan kept the story constantly in flux, so much so that stars Farrell and Knightley didn’t know until the last minute the particulars of their relationship, or their character motivations, or their ultimate fates.  The movie reflects that quality—anything could happen at any moment.  That’s a kick because you can’t predict how it turns out, but it’s also a drag because nothing coheres; the movie just races from one disparate subplot to the next.

And it is in that condition where Monahan’s boundless intelligence and passion fail him.  Every scene is played to the hilt, with alternatively funny/menacing/beautiful dialogue and lovely performances, but Monahan is so intent on precisely shaping each pearl (scene) that he forgets to string them into the necklace (final film).  What he gains in spirit and surprise, we pay for in exhaustion—it’s near impossible to make sense of Monahan’s unholy brew.

But as I’ve mentioned before, I like this kind of mess.  True artistic fiascos are unpredictable and often inspired and thrillingly alive—you get an unfiltered picture of the artist’s inner workings.  London Boulevard fails because it tries too hard, rather than content itself with mediocrity.  Would that all bad movies followed suit.

Sony’s London Boulevard Blu-ray provides a beyond-slick HD transfer with a brassy 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track (all the better for the gunshots and the Yardbirds’ blaring “Heart Full of Soul” licks).  We get one bonus supplement, the aforementioned behind-the-scenes featurette, which is more candid and interesting than I expected.

London Boulevard is a failure, but it is a glorious failure.  Recommended for fans of British cinema, for Monahan acolytes…hell, recommended for anyone who ever dreamed of being Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove riding the bomb all the way down to total annihilation.  The movie feels a little like that.

London Boulevard streets on February 21st.  Click HERE for Amazon’s page listing.

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