Philip Concannon looks at three linked Brit gangster films. Can nothing stop the Geezer Appeal bandwagon?
On December 7th 1995, three dead bodies were found in a Range Rover on a remote farmland in Rettendon, Essex. The three men – Patrick Tate, Tony Tucker and Craig Rolfe – were notorious criminals who appeared to have fallen victim to an ambush in a drug deal gone awry, and two men were later convicted of the triple murders. Michael Steele and Jack Whomes are currently serving life sentences despite continually protesting their innocence, and various other individuals involved in the incident have either disappeared into the witness protection programme or made money from books tangentially connected to the three dead men.
That’s about all there is to the case of the Rettendon Range Rover murders, and yet between the years 2000 and 2010 no less than three films inspired by these events were released into UK cinemas (in the same period of time Terence Davies, one of our greatest filmmakers, struggled to get two pictures made). In a world teeming with amazing stories just begging to be told, why has this grubby tale about nasty people proved such an irresistible lure to filmmakers in this country? In truth, it’s not hard to see why – whatever angle you choose to attack this tale from, it offers up drugs, sex, betrayal and lashings of violence. For tawdry thrills that will appeal to an undemanding DVD audience, this incident appears to be a sure thing. If you’re after anything more than that – if you yearn for such cinematic luxuries as complex characters, witty dialogue and nimble plotting – you’d be advised to look away as I delve into the murky world of Essex Boys, Rise of the Footsoldier and Bonded by Blood.
There are so many depressing aspects to these films, but one of the most noticeable things they have in common is a crushing lack of imagination. Essex Boys immediately informs us that it has been liberal with the truth, opening with a disclaimer that says, “This story is inspired by a single true event. It left three men dead, two serving life imprisonment and another living under an assumed identity. The rest is fiction, as are all the characters.” Basically, aside from the fact that three cockney crooks end up getting shot in a Range Rover, Essex Boys is entirely invented by screenwriters Jeff Pope and Terry Winsor, but what have they invented? The film dully embraces all of the clichés we expect from cheap crime films: there’s the wide-eyed youngster who gets mixed up with the wrong crowd (Charlie Creed-Miles), the borderline psychotic ex-con (Sean Bean at his worst) and his scheming wife (Alex Kingston). The narrative structure and use of voiceover suggests that director Winsor wants to emulate Goodfellas (and he tries to shoots Southend nightlife like the Vegas of Scorsese’s Casino) but the predictable, sluggish storytelling and complete lack of interesting or likeable characters soon sinks it.
Aside from its largely fictional nature, the one thing that does distinguish Essex Boys from the two films that followed is the role taken by Alex Kingston. Lisa isn’t much of a character, but at least she has a function within the plot and she even ends up turning the tables on the men around her. In Rise of the Footsoldier and Bonded by Blood, women are given a very raw deal. I was briefly cheered at the start of Footsoldier by the appearance of Lara Belmont – seen too infrequently since her staggering debut in The War Zone – but I quickly realised that she was there to be mistreated by her husband and was therefore representative of all female characters in these films. Take Kierston Wareing (so memorable in Fish Tank) for example, as she is one of many actors who has the dubious distinction of appearing in both movies. In the first film she gets to give Craig Fairbrass a handjob in a café and a blowjob in a car, while the second gives her the opportunity to be repeatedly called a “cunt” (about five times in ten seconds) by Tamer Hassan before having sex with Vincent Regan. Both movies line women up to get shagged, shouted at or slapped around, and the films display no interest in them once they have served their meagre purpose. This is a man’s world.
But what a repugnant world it is, and it doesn’t get much uglier than Rise of the Footsoldier. Julian Gilbey’s film charts the rise to infamy of football hooligan, club bouncer and drug dealer/user Carlton Leach (played by the dismally uncharismatic Ricci Harnett), with a focus on explicit violence being the movie’s chief selling point. From the opening shot that lingers on the blown-apart faces of the Rettendon victims, Footsoldier wallows in cruelty and bloodshed; an axe to the skull, a face smashed against a bar, nails hammered into flesh, a pizza slicer applied to a mouth. When this laborious film finally does reach the climactic murders, Gilbey replays them from a variety of perspectives to depict the conflicting theories on who was behind the killings (was it drug dealers they ripped off, former colleagues or even a police hit? Does anybody care?), and on each occasion he makes sure we see the arterial spray and gaping wounds inflicted by the shotgun blasts. It is an abysmal movie.
All of which means that Bonded by Blood is probably the best of the three films based on the Rettendon murders, almost by default. It achieves this exalted status by simply being a solid, generally coherent production that sticks to its story in a straightforward manner. It is neither as lethargic as Essex Boys nor as obnoxious as Rise of the Footsoldier and I suppose it must be counted as a moderate success. Ultimately, however, it’s just another tiresome British movie in which unpleasant people snort drugs, degrade women, shoot people and end every other sentence with the word “cunt” (the Bonded by Blood DVD even has a ‘special feature’ which consists entirely of cast and crew shouting that word at the camera – you stay classy, British crime flicks). Whatever virtues it has in being slightly more tolerable than its predecessors, Bonded by Blood remains a film totally lacking in wit, humanity or style; all attributes that are apparently unnecessary when recounting tales of cockney criminality.
Back in 2000, Essex Boys was the latest of many terrible films clearly attempting to capitalise on the success of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and that bandwagon mercifully appeared to stall shortly afterwards, but where is this insatiable appetite for shitty, nasty, empty British crime movies now coming from? There is clearly a demand or else we wouldn’t have such a steady supply, and they appear to have grown into a genre unto themselves, with movie after movie looking the same, sounding the same and featuring the same roster of actors (it’s a surprise that Danny Dyer doesn’t appear at any point in the Essex trilogy). It doesn’t seem to matter if these movies are good or bad or if they’re recycling tales already told, and the production rate of these films shows no signs of slowing down. After three lousy attempts I’d like to think that this story is all played out, but if there’s still money to be made from the Rettendon murders, I wouldn’t bet against yet another trip to Essex in the not too distant future.
Philip Concannon writes about film at Phil on Film