Dead Shot marks a welcome return to big-screen screenwriting for Ronan Bennett, who penned 1997's stylish Face for Antonia Bird - one of the last serious British crime movies before Guy Ritchie took hold - then oversaw the inner-city drama Top Boy as it transitioned from Channel 4 to Netflix. I don't want to make too great or glowing a case for the new film - it's a little ragged around the edges, due mainly to the circumstances of its production - but there are stretches, particularly early on, where it promises a return to terse, brisk, broadly well-marshalled thriller plotting. As reworked by sibling directors Tom and Charles Guard, Bennett's script gives us an hour and a half in the fraught company of two men on either side of the Irish Troubles as they were in 1975. Michael O'Hara (Colin Morgan), known as "The Bandit", is an IRA man seeking vengeance in London after witnessing his pregnant wife shot and killed by the paras back home; Tempest (Aml Ameen) the black British officer responsible for the shooting. They've been arranged into a pursuit narrative with a few characters too many and the occasional echo - intentional or otherwise - of The Crying Game and Carol Reed's Odd Man Out. After pointing out Tempest could technically be charged with murder, Mark Strong's suave Special Branch officer Holland blackmails the soldier into tying up (read: doing away with) the loose end O'Hara, thus ensuring the cycles of retributory violence can continue to run like clockwork.
Offered a cursory cinema release last weekend for BAFTA consideration - several weeks after it was made available for streaming on Sky - it's the kind of venture the industry no longer knows what to do with: a quietly committed diversion for grown-ups, of a type that was once a commonplace in the multiplex. (The mind flashes back to those Troubles-themed thrillers - typically starring Stephen Rea, John Lynch or, in especially prestigious circumstances, Daniel Day-Lewis - that were a feature of the 1990s.) The writing proves central to this: Bennett gets to the heart of these characters in one or two scenes, and - without labouring the point unduly - establishes that both his antagonists are victims of this conflict, pawns in a game played by those with the luxury of sending others to their deaths. Here, Dead Shot intersects with Top Boy, in that the violence is mostly played for tragedy rather than thrills. AWOL since 2009's middling paranormal remake The Uninvited, the Guard brothers go all in on a vision of a grey, rainy, tatty mainland: 90% of the production design is uncollected refuse bags, trying to disguise the fact Glasgow is having to pass for Paddington and Notting Hill. (Cheaper, presumably.) They're also responsible for the one element here that feels superfluous and distracting: a deglammed Felicity Jones as the IRA sympathiser who becomes Morgan's London handler. (She's married to one of the directors.) It's one of those not-quite projects - slightly too big for primetime, a touch modest for cinemas, its ideal form would have been as the lower half of a theatrical double-bill in the year of its setting. With even a bit more money, bigger names in the leads, and one or two better decisions on the long road from page to screen, it could have been a contender. As it is, it's a B-movie that knows just enough to get the job done.
Dead Shot is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via NOW.