By Owen Gleiberman
Updated March 05, 1993 at 05:00 AM EST

In his first comedy, the maverick British director Ken Loach (Hidden Agenda) does something ticklish and remarkable. Digging into the lives of impoverished London construction workers who live in half-empty ”squats” and toil for slave wages, Loach, without in any way sentimentalizing their bottom-dweller travails, makes his characters funny, resilient, and bitterly alive — as spirited, in their way, as Henry Miller’s feisty gutter rebels. The hero, a former thief (Robert Carlyle), all gaunt cheeks and surly attitude, lands makeshift employment at a condo-conversion site and hooks up with a cute but frightfully needy amateur singer (Emer McCourt). Loach employs a lively, if scrappy, quasi-documentary style, and his hard-hat blokes — British, Irish, Scottish, Caribbean — speak in such thick working-class accents that the dialogue, though entirely in English, is accompanied by subtitles. It’s a good thing they’re there too: Watching Riff-Raff, you’ll want to catch every hard- bitten morsel of chatter that spills out of these nihilistic roughnecks, who exist so far down in the British class system that most of them have given up dreaming. Comedy doesn’t cut much closer to the bone. A-