Promotional material for the grandiosely titled, micro-budgeted period crime opus Once Upon a Time in London would suggest its ultimate destiny lies in the 24-hour garage bargain bin alongside hardman perennials about the fall of the Krays and the rise of the Footsoldiers: it's written and produced by (and evidently conceived as a star vehicle for) Terry Stone, an actor who's lent his sturdy, poundland-Gandolfini presence to more than one movie about the Rettendon Range Rover murders. Look a little closer at the poster, however, and there's a surprise: OUATIL has been directed by the inventive and enterprising Simon Rumley, who - from 2000's Strong Language through to last year's Crowhurst - has completed a run of varied, generally interesting films without the benefit of a single BBC Films or Film4 payday. It's an unexpected match-up - a filmmaker who's exhibited some style and vision wrestling to bring order to the kind of hastily developed material typically worked into post-pub DVD fodder - but the result is a dispiriting bore. OUATIL has the advantage of a someone behind the camera who knows how to frame a shot, but conspicuous budgetary constraints mean very few of these set-ups thrill or really convince; as an exercise in coherent storytelling, the film is more or less dead in the water.
Stone's USP is to set this latest round of ducking and diving in the middle of the last century, against a backdrop of rising fascism. (We know this, because a honking voiceover says as much before the opening credits.) A dozen or so cyphers are suited, booted and set charging into a bewildering rash of local and international incident, choppily hacked into two numbing hours: Jamie Foreman and the ever-crafty Geoff Bell find something better to do, and get to duck out around the half-hour mark, leaving Stone's hubristic Jack Comer and Leo Gregory's marginally humbler Billy Hill to show up mobhanded in underlit East End boozers and duke it out for the title of "King of the Underworld". That we have no emotional connection to these terminal wrong'uns would be less of an issue if they were stronger, more colourful characters, but the film is only ever interested in them as hatchet-faced thugs and killers. Roland Manookian's quietly sociopathic Frankie Fraser, throwing darts at one of his victims like a contestant trying to win a hi-fi system on Bullseye, briefly catches the eye, but he's mostly there to connect OUATIL to the Krays Cinematic Universe; most scenes end with Stone bellowing himself gammon-pink and then lamping some unfortunate. Bereft of any truly involving human drama, Rumley is reduced to a joyless working through of backstreet tropes: grim doggy-style sex reflecting a wider indifference to women, much bluff talk of "honourable men" giving way to inevitable aggro. A surprisingly high number of Once Upon a Time... movies have turned out to be great: even Robert Rodriguez's Once Upon a Time in Mexico proved to be everything one might want from an all-star custard-pie fight. Slithering beneath the middling bar set by Shane Meadows' one outright misfire Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, OUATIL is, as perhaps befits this Brexit moment, ever so slightly cringeworthy.
Once Upon a Time in London opens in selected cinemas from today, ahead of its DVD release on June 10.