Monday, 3 April 2017

The fair-to-middling sleep: "City of Tiny Lights"

A homecoming project for both director Pete Travis (Vantage Point, Dredd) and leading man Riz Ahmed (The Night Of, Rogue One), the self-conscious neo-noir City of Tiny Lights imposes certain generic elements (femmes fatales and damsels in distress, a white-knight hero) upon the streetmap of multicultural 21st century London to generally indifferent effect. As Ahmed's private investigator Tommy Akhtar sets out on his cherchez la femme quest for a missing Slavic hooker with blood on her hands, and tries not to disappear down the rabbit hole of his own schoolyard memories, the phrase that keeps coming up is "episodic allegory". The film, adapted by author Patrick Neate from his own novel, merits but one of those two descriptives. Akhtar asks the right questions and shuffles through the long night towards a form of enlightenment, encountering such topical tropes as dodgy developers and Islamic fundamentalists, but the film proves flatfooted and self-contained in a way particular to the BBC Films logo that appears on screen in the opening seconds: it's all too clearly TV waiting to happen, flicking perfunctorily around within the kind of A-plot/B-plot structure that might have been better fleshed out over the course of a five-part miniseries.

In the absence of much narrative or character depth, Travis - who, we must conclude, was incredibly unlucky with the box-office failure of Dredd, a rare comic-book release that actually deserved sequels - gives it a thin patina of style, all lens flare, neon filters and undermotivated handheld. Yet it's no more than one might chance upon in BBC4's Saturday night crime slot; in this altogether boxy context, it leaves us with something more Chicken Cottage than Chungking Express. It'll likely be remembered - if at all - as a repository of emergent, of-the-moment actors (Ahmed, Billie Piper, Cush Jumbo) who've yet to establish themselves on the big screen and therefore presumably come a little cheaper, yet the show is comprehensively stolen by the juvenile leads, who lend some spark to an otherwise pretty somnolent throughline: the younger versions of Ahmed and Piper's characters (Reiss Kershi-Hussain and Hannah Rae) have been exceptionally well cast, while Mohammad Ali Amiri makes an impression in a handful of scenes as the P.I.'s hoodie-clad sidekick. A bit more of his rude energy might have lifted the whole, but even he ends up in a coma come the final act.

City of Tiny Lights opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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