Thursday 18 October 2018

The high Low Country: "Gangsta"

Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah - who bill themselves, with typical informality, as simply Adil and Bilall - are the young Flemish writer-directors who made an impression across Europe with their 2015 thriller Black. Their follow-up Gangsta returns us to the same inner-city milieu, though it's very much a film of two halves: the freshness and cheek its makers display early on wears off with a dismaying rapidity. Its boldest move, as contemporary crime drama, is to throw back not to Tarantino or Guy Ritchie, but to those religiose gangster movies of the 1930s, describing the haphazard swathe one credulous slacker cuts through the Antwerp drug trade with structuring help from the seven deadly sins. Sloth is the life our boy leads before his life of crime (bunking off, gaming, masturbation); envy enters the picture after a sharpsuited Dutch kingpin speeds into town to offload several kilos of cocaine and makes off with our boy's dreamgirl. Gluttony is what he spends his ill-gotten gains on; wrath is left until late on.

It's a nifty way of reshuffling and reordering some very familiar ingredients (corrupt cops, montages of coke consumption apparently cut by someone who's taken a very big snort, a Taxi Driver homage here, a Fast & Furious-style drag race there), and these are cut with newer elements that keep the pulse rate and interest levels high for a while. Chief among these: a matter-of-fact multiculturalism, approached here head-on, from the inside out, which generates grace notes regarding the ways race and skin colour affects characters already subsisting on the margins, and the cops on their tail. Considerable superficial pleasure can be drawn from the directors' decision to shoot Antwerp, of all places, as though it were the sun-bright Florida of a Grand Theft Auto sequel, and not just a few miles down the track from where the Dardenne brothers have traditionally operated. (Reports linking this pair with the long-gestating Bad Boys and Beverly Hills Cop sequels make more sense once you've seen the film.)

Everyone's heading for a pretty precipitous fall, however. This is the kind of post-Refn cinéma du look that owes it to itself (and to its audience) to get in, get the job done, and get out without undue fuss or labour; instead, Gangsta ploughs on for a full two hours, allowing ample time for its irreverent highs to wear off, and for what at first seems like youthful cheek to stray into outright waywardness. You can feel these directors egging one another on, resulting in frequent missteps: a POV shot from between anonymous breasts off which coke is being snorted, a fake-out ending that offers only false hope, nasty, leering dollops of violence. Possibly the idea was to shock us - as our hero is shocked to realise the game he's playing has very real consequences - but the tactics the filmmakers deploy start to seem like ugly cliches rather than directorial playthings. Gangsta remains notably more cosmopolitan than Nick Love's The Business, its closest UK equivalent, but it's disappointing that what initially presents as exuberant should descend into the tiresomely posy and juvenile. 21st century Hollywood may be the best place for this pair. But heaven help the rest of us.

Gangsta opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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