Noel Clarke wrote the script for Kidulthood (2006), a fast, aggressive, shocking look at the lives of poor, 15-year-old Notting Hillers. Its main concerns were sex, violence, drugs, bullying, suicide and dodgy shooters (Clarke starred as the villain, Sam) but it was bracingly funny and whizzed along to a groovy, Brits-only soundtrack.
In 2008, Clarke wrote and directed the sequel Adulthood, in which he reprised his badass anti-hero, released from prison after six years; it was longer, more preachy and less well plotted than the original, but at least attempted to reflect the traumas of a disenfranchised London yoof culture. Clarke was clearly someone with his finger on the throbbing vein of the zeitgeist. Last year he picked up a Bafta Rising Star award. Would he turn out to be our home-grown Spike Lee?
Well no, actually, if 126.96.36.199. is the direction he's taking. From charting the losers and villains of grim London streets, he's gone upmarket, uptempo, uptown and, frankly, up himself – happiest when filling the screen with strutting chicks, rapid inter-cutting and enough guns, cars, planes and fancy apartments to suggest he's auditioning to film a Snoop Dogg video.
The film starts with a twenty-something girl standing on a London bridge, evidently about to kill herself. Three other girls approach, apparently to talk her out of it – then one pulls a gun and orders her down. Wtf? Do you dissuade a would-be suicide by threatening to shoot her? The four girls, we learn, are friends. In fact, they are a quartet of cray-zee chicks such as only appear in movies, strikingly different in looks, height, background and temperament. There's Shannon, played by the pleasingly named Ophelia Lovibond, sweet-faced, lonesome and constantly in tears, a kind of professional victim; Cassandra (Tamsin Egerton, last seen in St Trinian's), a swishy, leggy, posh, blonde Home Counties classical pianist; Kerrys (Shanika Warren-Markland) a freakishly tall, lesbian tough nut in a succession of training bras; and Joanna (Emma Roberts – niece of Julia, daughter of Eric), a sweet-faced but whiny American who works inexplicably in a rubbishy grocery store called Teds.
It's impossible to imagine them being real friends, or conducting a conversation that lasts more than 10 seconds. Their only real function is to be Noel Clarke's Bitches, as surely as the Angels were Charlie's. Not that these girls are crime-fighters. They occupy a territory somewhere between the Sex and the City women ("If you can't find Mr Right," Kerrys tells Jo, "get Mr Vibrator") and the Spice Girls. Hell, one of the quartet tells a would-be mugger, "Girls rule!" Given the wrinkled antiquity of these chick-collectives, you wish Mr Clarke could have come up with some new template of feisty womankind.
Anyway, Weepy Spice, Snooty Spice, Dykey Spice and Yankee Spice become accidentally involved with a gang of jewel thieves, who've pulled off a heist in Holland. In London, outside Westfield shopping centre, a group of youths run through the street and collide with the girls; a diamond is accidentally transferred into a handbag and a plot of sorts develops, constantly interrupted by irrelevant narratives. Cassandra flies to New York and loses her virginity, but gets to chat on the plane to Kevin Smith, gargantuan director of the 1994 film Clerks, who has a walk-on part. Kerrys moves into Cassandra's flash apartment to enjoy hot, if gratuitous sex with her girlfriend (Susannah Fielding) and gets stuck in a panic room. In her boring convenience store, Emma witnesses her brusque-but-sexy boss (Noel Clarke) misappropriating the key to the safe, just before the jewel gang comes crashing in. Shannon weeps a lot, sprays graffiti, worries about her recently abandoned dad (a completely wasted Sean Pertwee) and is saved from muggers by a lantern-jawed, kick-boxing, Ferrari-driving babe, played by Michelle Ryan out of EastEnders. There's seldom a dull moment in Foxy Babe Land.
The male characters have a less exciting time. They converse in that cockily ridiculous street patois that your children were affecting two or three years ago, full of "You get me?" and "bruv", and are mostly hopeless at everything except pulling guns on each other. But the dialogue sometimes crackles into life. A gang of desperadoes confront Kerrys snogging her girlfriend in a nightclub, and try to abuse her. Kerrys tells them to eff off. "You kiss your muvva with that mouf?" asks one guy. "No," snaps Kerrys, "but I kissed yours."
The girls' individual stories are traced successively (and interminably) in four narratives with inter-threaded details. So when Cassandra in New York rings Jo in London, we hear their conversation – then hear the other side of it when Jo's story comes round. This multifaceted, story-from-several-angles routine has fuelled umpteen movies, good and bad, from Kurosawa's Rashomon to Tarantino's Jackie Brown, but the device is generally used to shed different perspectives on the truth of a scene. Here, it tells you nothing except which girl was where at what time.
In Empire magazine, Clarke bumptiously nominates Alejandro Inarritu's magnificent debut feature, Amores Perros, as the kind of film he was thinking to emulate. Of 188.8.131.52. he says, "It's told in a bit of an off-kilter way, which I don't think is done much in this country." Yes it is, Noel. It's done in a hundred thousand music videos that involve guns, babes and lots of empty posturing. We'd expected something a bit different. You get me?
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