Already a box office superstar, an in-demand club DJ, and of course the Sexiest Man Alive, Idris Elba continues his Renaissance man will to power with Yardie — his feature film debut as a director. Adapted from the 1992 cult novel by Victor Headley, the movie is a City of God-like crime drama that globetrots from the shantytowns of Jamaica to the lawless mean streets of East London in the ’70s and ’80s. Yardie is a sprawling drug-world saga, but whatever narrative flaws it has are helped out by an infectious selection of dub-heavy reggae tracks and an authentically gritty sense of period and place.
The story follows D (The Maze Runner’s Aml Ameen), a low-level coke dealer with the sort of hubris and lofty ambitions that usually spell doom in movies like this — or at least an early date with the coroner. Fueled by the murder of his older brother back in Kingston, which still haunts his dreams, D isn’t satisfied with gradually climbing the ladder of the criminality rung-by-rung. He wants money, power, and especially vengeance now. This leads to a series of impetuous decisions that end up putting his childhood sweetheart (Shantol Jackson) and his young daughter in jeopardy at the hands of a scary, hair-trigger kingpin played by a rip-snorting Stephen Graham. You want to root for D, but Elba’s film doesn’t always make it easy.
The film’s title is Jamaican slang for a gang member. And while the film’s setting may be fresh, the plot beats are very familiar. Elba bites off a lot trying to weave together his chronicle of drugs, violence, music, and the immigrant experience. Probably a little too much. Having grown up in the Hackney section of London, he certainly knows the area he’s depicting, but in his first time out behind the camera, you can’t help but feel that his reach has exceeded his grasp. When it’s over, Elba’s movie may not stick with you very long, but you may just find yourself rushing to download the soundtrack. B-
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