Wild Bill, Dexter Fletcher, 96 mins (15)
The Hunger Games, Gary Ross, 146 mins (12A)
Dexter Fletcher does the miraculous and breathes real life into the mouldering corpse of the gangster Britflick – but a much-touted dystopian fantasy is dead on arrival
Sunday 25 March 2012
The success of Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels opened the floodgates to a torrent of inferior gangster-geezer movies. So, news that one of its stars, Dexter Fletcher, had directed and co-written his own East End crime caper, a decade after everyone else, probably didn't pique the interest of many Bafta voters.
The cameos from just about every actor who's ever done a Cockney accent on the big screen, from Jaime Winstone to Jason Flemyng, don't inspire confidence either, and the basic plot is no different from most of those Lock, Stock ... wannabes.
A shell-suited hardman, Charlie Creed-Miles, finishes an eight-year prison term to find that his ex-wife has abandoned their two sons to live alone in a filthy council flat. The 15-year-old, Will Poulter, is doing his best, but he can't stop his 11-year-old brother, Sammy Williams, sliding into delinquency. Creed-Miles has to move in with them to prevent the boys from being taken into care, but the drug dealers from his old manor, Leo Gregory and Andy Serkis, would rather he left town, preferably in a box.
With these credentials, Wild Bill should be just another of the tawdry bloke-sploitation movies that the British film industry keeps foisting on us ... which makes it all the more cheering to report that it's the most affecting, funny, and sure-footed comedy-drama that we're likely to see this year. Yes, it has boozers, brawls and a tart with a heart, but its tone is very much its own: gritty without being gloomy, soft-hearted without being sentimental. And it has a polished script, by Fletcher and Danny King, which packs cherishable sarcasm into every line. What's particularly refreshing is that the film doesn't glamorise its small-time crooks. In the view of Wild Bill, true heroism lies in cleaning the toilet, cooking a shepherd's pie and sticking at a job that pays £3 an hour.
The film's tough-but-tender feel is epitomised by its eponymous hero, who, despite his fearsome reputation, is a flustered, well-meaning soul who quails at the thought of another jail sentence. Creed-Miles is superbly nuanced and sympathetic in the lead role. Poulter, one of the child stars of Son of Rambow, proves to have the wiry intensity to be a grown-up star, too. But Wild Bill isn't a two-man show. Fletcher and King have given each of the many characters their own identity – along with a generous helping of excellent jokes.
The film's socio-political subtext also sets it apart from just about every other post-Guy-Ritchie film: Creed-Miles's high-rise flat may overlook east London's shiny new Olympic Park, but the lives of everyone he knows remain resolutely un-regenerated. Bafta voters – and everyone else – should jump to attention now.
The Hunger Games, like the zillion-selling novel from which it's adapted, has one of those grandiose concepts which you either go with or you don't – and I couldn't go with it. The idea is that in a dystopian future, America will be divided into 13 regions. One of these is a metropolis where the decadent hyper-rich swank around in Marie Antoinette costumes. The other 12 are where the proles toil in poverty. Every year, two teenagers from each of those 12 provinces are picked by lottery to fight to the death in the televised Hunger Games. One of the unlucky teens is Jennifer Lawrence, who plays much the same self-sufficient survivalist as she did in Winter's Bone. Whisked away to the capital, she's coached by a shell-shocked former winner, Woody Harrelson, and interviewed by a toothy, blue-haired game-show host, Stanley Tucci, before being deposited in a forest, where she has to murder her 23 young competitors. It's like a junior I'm a Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here!, but with more machetes.
I don't know whether this noxious premise seems plausible in Suzanne Collins's book, but the film leaves some fundamental questions unanswered, the most fundamental of which is: what's the point of the Games, anyway? It's suggested that they remind the workers not to rise up against their masters, but surely such a ritualised bloodbath would be more likely to foment a revolution than discourage it. (Remember Spartacus?) And as the seat of power is a monumental city capable of devoting vast resources and mind-blowing technology to the Games, I can't see that its oligarchs would have anything to fear from a cowed and starving underclass.
Maybe I'm taking Collins's cartoonish satire too seriously, but that's how The Hunger Games wants to be taken. With its wobbly, indie camerawork, its lack of humour and Lawrence's sullen perma-frown, it presents itself as something deeper and darker than the woolly fantasy it is. It's The Running Man for Justin Bieber fans.
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