Directed by Idris Elba
Starring Aml Ameen, Sheldon Shepherd, Stephen Graham, Shantol Jackson
Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA rating: not rated
by Jaime Davis, The Fixer
Actors directing movies is nothing new, yet for some reason it feels novel when an actor announces they’re heading to the director’s chair. Like…look what I can do, world! For every solid Gone Baby Gone, there’s an equally squalid Live by Night (thank you, Ben Affleck). I’m typically skeptical of actors jumping into the hot seat…call me a doubter but I don’t want to watch folks, typically revered as actors, getting dogged by critics and grandmas the world over when they fail to impress as directors. Maybe I’m just a benevolent overprotective big sister type? Or maybe I’m a hater. (Probably 86% hater). I’ll be the first to admit when I’m wrong, though - I’ve gone on the record about Bradley Cooper’s skills and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird ended up being an example of fine filmmaking. Olivia Wilde is the latest to break into the game - a super fun trailer for her film, Booksmart, has been making the rounds online. So when I heard Idris Elba was diving in, filming an adaptation of Victor Headley’s 1992 novel Yardie, I crossed my fingers, said a sweet ‘lil Catholic prayer my grandma taught me, and held my breath. I love Idris Elba! Doesn’t everybody? Please oh please oh please oh please oh please oh please let it be decent, I chanted to myself for weeks.
Yardie is, unfortunately, not the directorial debut I was hoping for. The story feels a bit rushed and disjointed, crippled with unfortunate voice over at the beginning and end. Unnecessary narration ushers us from scene to scene, when in many cases simple visuals could have served a similar purpose. This is, of course, not all Elba’s fault necessarily. Novels are painfully hard to condense and turn into showpieces - and Headley’s original story was eventually expanded into two subsequent books - Excess and Yush! - making it extremely difficult for any writer or director to streamline the story into a cohesive filmic narrative.
So about that story…Yardie centers on D (Aml Ameen), a young boy growing up in violent Kingston, Jamaica in the 70’s. The only family he has is his brother Jerry Dread, a wise young man intent on bringing people together despite a local gang war resulting in the deaths of innocent bystanders and children. D’s life is flipped upside down at a dance his brother organizes that ends in a fatal altercation. All D is left with is a burning thirst for revenge amidst his brother’s last words: “The wicked can’t hide.” Suddenly we’re flung about 10 years into the future - D is now a young man working as an associate to King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), leader of the Spicer gang. Sent on a fool’s errand to London to deliver some cocaine to Rico (Stephen Graham, trying reallyyyy hard to keep his Jamaican accent in check), D decides he isn’t feeling it and looks up his old girlfriend Yvonne (Shantol Jackson) and their daughter Vanessa instead. Oh yeah - that’s a whole other part of the beginning backstory we don’t get to see. We meet a young Yvonne but it’s the voiceover that tells us they had a baby and she fled to London for a better life. So once D finds himself in hot water with local Yardie gangs for fleecing Rico out of the coke, you can imagine all hell breaks loose. While this is the point where the story really seems to pick up speed, it’s also where it gets the muddiest - more and more characters are introduced, little is explained, character motives driving the plot don’t add up.
The story itself left me with a lot of unanswered questions - why were D and his brother living alone in Kingston? What brought D to work for King Fox, enmeshing himself in the world that took his beloved brother away? Why didn’t D go to London with Yvonne and Vanessa in the first place? By the end of the film one or two (slightly spoiler-y) things come full circle so I won’t explain them in detail, yet I was left wanting more. I never felt like I knew D - as a character he’s sketched with some interesting strokes, but unfortunately lacks depth and color.
I found myself sticking with Yardie solely for the depth and color found elsewhere - the London crime setting is something we’ve seen plenty of times (Snatch, Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, Layer Cake, Sexy Beast, The Bank Job…reh teh teh (that’s some London slang for ya, meaning “etc.”) - but never like this because those films feature mostly white actors and Irishmen and Italians and Eastern European thuggies. So I really enjoy and appreciate the perspective Yardie comes from. Beyond that it looks pretty damn cool - I didn’t get to watch on a big screen, but from what I could see, the cinematography is sharp and slick with a color palette that feels undeniably warm. What really got me is the soundtrack - Carlton and the Shoes’ “Love Me Forever” shares space with classic “Kingston Town” by Lord Creator; Grace Jones’ “My Jamaican Guy” flows alongside Black Uhuru’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and Burning Spear’s “Marcus Garvey.” But my favorite music moment within Yardie is when “Work to Do” by The Isley Brothers pops up. That part was mad hectic! That means “amazing” in London-speak, apparently. I may not be rushing to watch Yardie again but I will be tuning to this soundtrack again and again. And patiently waiting to see what’s next for Idris, the director.