Idris Elba’s directorial debut, Yardie, brings us a reggae-flavoured look at different sort of gangster than we’re used to seeing on our screens.
Yardie is the tale of Dee (Aml Ameen), a young man in the 1970s with a chip on his shoulder and a short temper after witnessing his brother gunned down in front of him when he was a child. Taken in by local crime boss King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), he grows up as an adopted son and soldier. When his temper finally gets the better of him and he jeopardises one of his boss’ drug deals, he is sent away to London to cool off; and also to deliver a kilo of cocaine to one of King Fox’s contacts, Rico (Stephen Graham). Things don’t go entirely to plan and soon Dee finds himself on the wrong side of Rico, dodging the gangster’s thugs while also attempting to rekindle his relationship with childhood sweetheart Yvonne (Shantol Jackson) and the daughter he’s not seen since she was a baby.
In terms of storytelling, Yardie shows us little that we haven’t already seen before. The gangster movie formula is a well-worn one by this point, but everything about Yardie is drenched in Jamaican culture and music. As well as the traditional gangster storyline, we also have Dee demonstrating that his love of music hasn’t dwindled as he helps out a small soundsystem (sort of a mobile disco, using massive sets of speakers to unleash a wall of sound) High Noon to perform in a sound clash. Jamaican culture is one of competition, where everyone is the hero of their own story, and a sound clash is a musical battle between rival soundsystems before a crowd that serves as the final judge and jury.
One thing to keep in mind before viewing Yardie is that if you struggle with accents, you may struggle with this film in the beginning. The Jamaican accent is a strong one and it can take a little while for you to dial your ear into what the actors are saying. Subtitles though, as some critics have suggested, really aren’t necessary, so don’t let that put you off.
Speaking of accents, special praise has to be given to Stephen Graham, who effortlessly shifts between Jamaican and London accents, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. His performance is one of the film’s best and he dominates every scene he’s in with his sheer manic energy.
There are strong performances all round. Aml Ameen portrays Dee as an angry, somewhat directionless young man who has never recovered from his brother’s death; one who operates by his own internal moral compass, as broken as it may be sometimes. He struggles to walk the “righteous path” but his upbringing and temperament often see him pulled to the darker side. Trying to help him stay on the straight-and-narrow is Yvonne, and Shantol Jackson plays her with a backbone as stiff and a temper every bit as fiery as Dee’s, who will do whatever she has to to protect the life she’s made for herself in London and shield her daughter from the less savoury aspects of Dee’s life.
Yardie will not revolutionise the gangster story, nor will the story set the cinematic world ablaze. What it does do is look at a culture that few will know much about. It will open your eyes and ears to Jamaican music in ways you’ve likely never heard.
Idris Elba continues to demonstrate his impressive array of talents: actor, musician and now director. Apparently while the rest of us were nipping off for a coffee, Idris was first in the line when they were handing out talents and decided to just grab a handful. With Yardie being the first of a trilogy of books, it would be good to be able to revisit the world of Dee and Yvonne and hopefully get the chance to see these characters develop. We will need to wait and hope that Yardie does well at the box office, but it is worth your time and your money.
Yardie hits UK cinemas on Friday 31 August. In the meantime, check out this director featurette with Idris Elba, courtesy of STUDIOCANAL.