iN Brief : A pretty decent addition to the canon of modern British gangster films, but one massively let down by a false premise and a sickeningly ludicrous plot decision towards the end.
mINI Review : iLL Manors appears in cinemas as the days count down to the London Olympic games. Set in Forest Gate, the Olympic park looms in the distance as we follow the story of multiple characters in the area through their dark world of narcotics and gangland culture. In true modern gangster film style, all of their stories begin to interlink and though some of the story is engaging, there is the distinct feeling of seeing exactly what we expected to before going in. It fails spectacularly to raise any sort of agenda. With even people in good jobs being forced out of areas like Forest Gate, as their rent is increased astronomically for the games, and no mention of this or any other socio-economic factor relating to the underprivileged of today, it’s an opportunity missed. If you have enjoyed British gangster films in the past, there is no reason you won’t like this. Nevertheless, Ben Drew has to have a very deep rethink of his strategy if he wants to adhere to his mission statement, and use the art form of film to redefine the class system in Britain. If anything, such fare can only entrench it further.
pLOT : People holding various positions in the London criminal fraternity go about their daily business. Meanwhile, some of the local youngsters are trying to break into the gangs, whilst others are trying to leave them.
fULL Review (contains spoilers) : iLL Manors is Ben Drew’s directorial debut. Who is Ben Drew, I hear you ask? He also goes by the professional moniker of Plan B. Who is Plan B? I hear most of you still cry. He is a rapper who has been on the circuit for a few years now and who has enjoyed limited chart success, having occasionally strayed into the UK top ten. The I.M.D.B. also reliably states he played one of the main hooligans in ‘Harry Brown’ (09) pitted against Michael Caine’s housing estate pensioner, and also had bit parts in both Noel Clarks ‘Adulthood’ (08) and ‘4..3..2..1’ (10) (if memory serves he was a jealous ex-lover in the latter who made comment regarding his successor having a larger male appendage than himself, perhaps indicating he’s OK with not taking himself too seriously).
Most movie goers will probably recognise him from the irritating Hewlett-Packard ads that have been playing before the trailers in cinemas. In these ads we are to believe Plan B is already highly successful, and it feels a little forced. Similarly the trailer for his first film at the helm describes him as a ‘visionary’, and herein lies the most immediate problem with iLL Manors. A gangster film, set in London, written and directed by a London rapper. Hmm. Is this really going to appeal to a wide audience? The British cinema viewing public will be pretty familiar with the regular appearance of British gangster films, invariably set in London, previously normally featuring Danny Dyer until he suggested it’s a good idea to scar the face of your ex-girlfriend so that no one else will want her (though his publisher Bauer Media did admit ‘an extremely regrettable production error’ had taken place and Dyer was adamant he had been misquoted, the damage was nevertheless done), and now quite often with Adam Deacon in the credits somewhere instead. These films will feature hip hop/rap music, a high percentage of black cast members, an abundance of swearing, drugs, and a reasonably high mortality rate. This is the modern template for the British gangster film, perhaps worryingly almost a cult genre in its own right.
There are exceptions of course, films that belong to the group but that add a little more originality to it, such as the aforementioned ‘Harry Brown’, the ending of ‘The Veteran’ (11) with Toby Kebbell, Dexter Fletcher’s recent ‘Wild Bill’ (11), but your average punter could well be forgiven for thinking this particular outing into the field will simply yield more of the same, with the only exception being it will also act as a vehicle for Plan B’s music. However, armed with the knowledge that Plan B released the single iLL Manors prior to the film, with the subject matter of the English riots of 2011 and, as he puts it, “society’s failure to nurture its disadvantaged youth/yoof,” we already have this set out to be a little different from the normal gangster fare. Especially since Drew has suggested the film and the single are the beginnings of a movement, led by himself, to address the class system in Britain. How then does the film actually bear up?
Not terribly well. Certainly not for the first third or so, where we are flung into the world of drug dealing gangsters, pretty much all of whom seem to be black, in what appears to be Drew’s own home turf of Forest Gate in London. We are introduced to a variety of characters, all different facets of the same prism, and some of the narrative is told via rap by Plan B, effectively rendering much of this dialogue indecipherable. Eventually there is a mention of ‘David Cameron’s Britain’. This is the first and last attempted link to any kind of social agenda, other than showing a fictional snapshot of what it might be like to be a drug dealing scumbag. And let’s be honest, the vast majority of the characters here are scumbags, with little to no room for sympathy or empathy from the audience. This, together with the soundtrack and story told via the director’s own rap, has the effect of suggesting this is more about the career of Plan B than anything else, of giving the appearance he is trying to appeal and ‘look cool’ to his target audience rather than comment on a larger social agenda, and that he is quite willing to use the banner of a social crusader for a misunderstood demographic to further entrench the music-culture-stereotypes-money in his pocket symbiotic relationship, feeding the loop whilst attempting to be a self professed hero to a generation of people that probably take a good deal of their vocabulary and mannerisms from music and film.
It’s a massive wasted opportunity. J.K.Rowling has made comment that she is always amazed at someone who cannot see the relationship between crime and poverty. With a view to the upcoming climax of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, in ‘Batman Begins’ (05) this theme is completely central to the story, and Bruce Wayne himself admits to losing many preconceptions about criminals when he is forced to steal food to survive after abandoning his name and fortune for a time. The current ruling political coalition of the United Kingdom have introduced changes to the welfare state, as part of their ‘austerity’ measures, that have seen the poorest and most vulnerable people in society left with nothing. Those without any other support network are increasingly being left with little choice other than to turn to crime, or beg, in order to survive. Mostly this will lead to a criminal record, making it increasingly unlikely to find normal employment and encouraging an endlessly downward spiral. On the back of these changes, England last year experienced the worst rioting of the modern era. The government backlash was to hit the perpetrators hard, someone who stole a pack of cigarettes received a lengthy custodial sentence for example, circa nine months, and a big deal was made in the media that the majority of the people involved had previous convictions. No doubt there were a great many opportunists and ‘hoodlums’, but equally there were probably those who were simply sick of being treated like animals and of having no democratic voice or, as far as they are concerned, choice. The driving force for these changes is the Conservative party who have effectively silenced their politically weak partners the Liberal Democrats for the time being, and who are doing a very impressive job of conforming to their centuries old stigma of being a party for the rich. There may be a sinister undertow to all of this, in that in the minds of the wealthy if you are poor, then you are a criminal, or at the least you soon will be. Indeed, the case has been made that if you are in jail you in many ways actually have more rights than if you are unemployed.
Indeed, job seekers currently have the pleasure of watching their section of the welfare state being privatised. Meaning that they have to deal with private companies who are being paid tax payers money to effectively cheapen the lives of the poor, forcing them to do demeaning and often pointless tasks in order to receive state benefits and commonly forcing them to work for the equivalent of two pounds something an hour. The thinking behind this is that’s it’s good for the poor to be told what to do as they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves otherwise. In reality an unworkable and corrupt environment is created that sees agencies profit, while thousands of people fall through the cracks and become destitute, and for the ones that don’t they have to endure the humility of being denigrated to nothing more than slave labour as there are aren’t enough jobs to go around, while the government continues to make it easier and easier for employers to lay off staff. Indeed, one of the private companies used in these schemes, A4e, are themselves being investigated under charges of fraud by the police, their head having resigned over the charges but not before netting herself a bonus of millions. This individual, prior to disgrace, was the government’s top advisor on unemployment. By the same token people put under the cosh by the state have to watch as bankers and the heads of other big businesses award themselves personal bonuses of millions, even though it was their own greed that caused the world recession in the first place. On a similar vein, there has been a particularly vehement attack on disability benefit that seems to have been started with the premise that most people on it are fraudsters. The end result is a huge backlog of complaints and appeals that the medical profession are expecting to be largely upheld, after many of society’s most vulnerable have been harassed and labelled as criminals. iLL Manors then could have been a double reference to the harsh realities of poverty stricken disadvantaged housing estates, together with the political ignorance and indifference of the actual manors of the richest in society.
Despite this heavy, target rich backdrop, iLL Manors has the one line with the mention of David Cameron, and that’s the full extend of its political content. The rest is just another gangster film. The bulk of the narrative follows the parallel between two characters. One, a youngster looking to score some weed and perhaps break into the social network of the area’s resident gang, but who is quickly used and led down a spiral of increasing violence, and another young man (Rhiz Ahmed) who is already a part of the local criminal fraternity, but who appears to be of a generally kind nature and who eventually tries, and succeeds, to get away from the lifestyle he was born into. The message of the film from this point of view is at least very clear.
Also to the film’s credit, is the introduction of characters suffering from forced prostitution. Sex grooming and slavery has been a huge problem in Europe’s biggest cities for a long time, and it is good to see a film reflecting this as British law also begins to buck a trend that previously seen seventy five percent of police forces around the country effectively turn a blind eye to the problem, their cited difficulty often being convincing the abused women, commonly girls, to testify. Similarly, showing two young kids from the neighbourhood lured into a dealer’s flat under promise of a ‘modelling’ prospect, and then being introduced to crack, highlights an all too common criminal problem. After about forty minutes or so these elements creep in and begin to make the film more interesting, though this does also coincide with less story telling rap. As a stand alone gangster film the whole then shapes up nicely, nicely that is until a certain incident. Red Dragon would like to categorically state that it is never acceptable to drop a baby out of a second story window. Especially when you then have someone catch it in a towel on the ground below and it’s completely fine. It’s pretty horrific to watch. Not to mention completely unbelievable, filmed as it is. Thrown from a room filled with smoke, but not yet with fire, could the perpetrator not have perhaps sat on the window ledge and waited for help instead? Surely there would have been enough air? The perps subsequent fall from the ledge and death would seem to paint him as a hero in the end, as if underneath he’s actually alright, but this is entirely at odds with every single other aspect of his character leading right up to that point.
The direction overall is fine, with some experimental elements creeping in, such as splitting the frame into multiple views. ‘Hulk’ (03) was slated for this, but the practise goes back much further, Peckinpah’s ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ (70), as one example. Similarly the ensemble cast do a convincing job of playing heavies and dealers, though more than a few pieces of dialogue could have done with being re-recorded. There is a consistent message of violence begetting violence, which is to the film’s credit, and similarly characters straying into the underworld of gangs and drugs do end up being hurt. With possibly the most immediate example in film history when one of the young innocent girls decides to try crack, then receives a fatal bullet to the chest seconds later.
Not bad, but the potential to make a bold statement and stand out from the crowd has been wasted completely.