Johnny English Reborn
Rowan Atkinson returns as the inept secret agent, this time taking on international assassins
A young man gets sucked into a life of football hooliganism in Nick Love's re-imagining of Alan Clarke's classic 1988 TV drama. This review contains strong language
Here's a Nick Love joke: two teenage boys are leaning against a wall. One says to the other, "I should stick a Tampax in you." "Why?" "Cos you're a cunt." If you enjoyed that, here's another joke for you: Nick Love's The Firm - a remake of the late Alan Clarke's final film, the only good drama about British football hooliganism ever produced. Just check out Green Street, I.D. or Love's own The Football Factory if you're unsure about that.
In Gary Oldman's Clive 'Bex' Bissell, Clarke's 1988 original features one of the all-time great screen villains: an upwardly mobile Loadsamoney with a sociology A-level and a Stanley knife. Reaping the benefits of the Lawson boom, this sociopathic estate agent and family man is seen to be a breed apart from the stereotyped bovver boy of the previous decade, whether gently intimidating clients or punching a woman in the face. But The Firm isn't only a superb character study. Above all, it's a damning indictment of grass roots Thatcherism turned brutal, tribal and nationalistic. Bex's baseball bat-wielding Inter City Firm is just the flip side of an altogether more ruthless and democratically elected 'firm'. For Bex, Trigger and Snowy read Thatcher, Tebbit and Hesseltine.
So, given the class, calibre and integrity of Clarke's output - and given Nick Love's - we haven't felt such a sinking feeling about a remake since Neil LaBute announced he was starting pre-production on The Wicker Man Mark II. A reaction the director himself anticipates: "I know there is an element of cynical people who are taking issue with the fact I've remade The Firm." It's a fair cop, Nick. You've caught us bang to rights. "But I'm hoping there's enough of a different angle and that we've taken this into different territory." You mean a territory that isn't populated by geezers, gangsters and a string of 1980s club hits? Ah.
Love's version backdates the action to 1984, a few years earlier than the original. So out go the quiffs and stripy yuppie shirts, and in come wedge-cuts and sportswear: a day-glo riot of Fila tracksuits, Adidas trainers, Pringle jumpers and Tacchini tops. The kind of clobber 17-year-old Dominic (Calum McNab) eagerly sports in his infatuated attempts to please West Ham firm leader Bex (Paul Anderson). The hapless lad is soon pitched into the violent world of Saturday turf wars with old rivals Millwall, discovering the hard way that what might look exciting on telly is acutely painful in real life.
Love has dutifully restaged a few key scenes from the original. The rest is fat; less a remake of Alan Clarke even, than a Football Factory rematch. Or Awaydays, stripped of all pretentions. Certainly, the entire point of Clarke's drama is anathema to the director. "I think if you get bogged down in the politics behind it all, it would play less as entertainment," he says. Instead, to please multiplex audiences, "which is what I'm aiming this at, you've got to have big fight scenes and lots of loud music".
Thus, deliberately shorn of any socio-political context (although the West Ham-Millwall kick-up of August 2009 has been an unfortunately well-timed gift, promotion-wise), this shallow and pointless remake settles for rehashing Love's single idea, familiar from his previous three pictures, in which a young, weedy, working-class guy gets sucked into a violently glamorous world led by a charismatic father figure who eventually turns round and bites him, before our hero escapes with a few scrapes and bruises. Whatever demons the former middle-class rude boy is trying to exorcise, he clearly hasn't achieved catharsis yet. This is less The Firm than 'The Formula'.
In between, there's the usual wooden performances, self-consciously laddish dialogue ("I'll hit you so hard, next time you wake up you'll have a chalk mark round you") and a certain colloquial diarrhea; having a garishly-dressed casual described as looking like "a fucking fruit pastille" is funny the first time, but to subsequently hear every permutation of it ("like a liquorice allsort"; "like a post box"; "like John McEnroe") gets really tedious, really quickly.
The film would also like to be patted on the back for its attention to 1980s detail, as if including Kool And The Gang songs and old 'TV AM' clips, or peopling gritty estates that have looked exactly the same for the past 25 years with a bunch of Diadora-wearing goons makes a brilliantly convincing time capsule on its own. Love's box-ticking period films are the equivalent of those retro CD box sets ('Now That's What I Call Exxon Valdez'), flogged in their millions to nostalgic fortysomethings who've apparently forgotten just how rancid the 1980s actually were. The music may be authentic, and the typeface spot-on, but the atmosphere just isn't there.
Given its director's claims to abhor violence, The Firm also broadcasts some extremely mixed messages: over some soppy piano chords, we're invited to feel sorry for Bex and Co after they and their motors take a battering. Not because they're pathetic. But because they lost a fight. Still, to his credit, Love's pretty good at choreographing simmering hostility, those nervy moments before everything kicks off. And while he's no Oldman, Paul Anderson is decent enough as the ferrety Bex, albeit with a severely reduced range. But Daniel Mays, so good in Shifty, is badly miscast as rival firm leader Yeti. Sporting albino locks and over-sized shades, Phil Davis was genuinely unsettling in the original. But with his puppy-eyes and sleepy demeanor, the Burberry-clad Mays just bears a striking and distinctly non-threatening resemblance to one Anthony Aloysius Hancock of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam.
"I'm not making films for film critics," says Love. "I'm not trying to be an arthouse filmmaker... I'm making films for the fucking chav generation." Which, although unbelievably patronising, is absolutely fair enough. Not everybody wants to be Antonioni, and thank God for that. "But as a filmmaker," he continues, "I need to start metamorphosis. I can't keep making fucking chav generation films." On this evidence, Love hasn't cracked the cocoon yet. The most positive thing you can say about Nick Love's The Firm is that it isn't Nick Love's Outlaw.
Another own goal for Love, actually.
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