18 February 2009

Essex Boys

Essex Boys Is The English Goodfellas

By Kristin Battestella

I heard the Goodfellas comparison when I first discovered the 2000 British crime thriller Essex Boys. I didn’t think it possible. Nothing compares to Goodfellas, not even The Godfather III. With a fine cast, brutal violence, and a twisted story based on factual events, Essex Boys is indeed the height of English gangster flicks.

When Jason Locke (Sean Bean) is released from his five year prison term, he quickly returns to his criminal ways. Unfortunately, his drug dealing crew has moved up the crime and social ladders without him. His abused wife Lisa (Alex Kingston) in tow, Locke assembles a new dealing crew and product by threatening former prison compatriot John Dyke (Tom Wilkinson). Locke’s driver Billy (Charlie Creed-Miles) ends up cleaning one mess after another, and soon neither he nor Jason can escape the vile twists and turns of crime in Essex.

Based on real life criminal events, Essex Boys serves up a complex story of drug dealing love, loyalty, and betrayal. Some of it is very English, and very Essex in particular. If you don’t have an ear for British accents, the subtitles are a must in catching all the subtle dialogue and details. I must admit though that Essex Boys is quite quotable, too. Director Terry Winsor (Hot Money) and co writer Jeff Pope (City Lights) equally present the players and keep us guessing as to who is double crossing and back-dooring whom. It’s refreshing to have a film where not all is revealed up front. We’re treated as an intelligent audience in for a crazy ride. Nothing is given away or dropped too soon, and the finale of Essex Boys may not be what you expect.

Now, as much as women go gaga over rough and tumble Sean Bean (Goldeneye, The Fellowship of the Ring), his performance as Jason Locke is not for everyone. He has the range and talent for a wide variety of roles, but we must admit that Bean does villains best. After spending years on television as Napoleonic hero Sharpe, Bean went to extremes here to revitalize his vile film persona. His acid loving, drug using, rapacious-wife beating-crook is so lush and detailed and spot on that it can really put off even the most Bean inclined viewer. Locke drinks and goes crazy, but has a mastery of weapons, women, and brutality. It’s a strong, heavy role that’s sick and sexy in its own way. Thoughts that Bean must have gone to a very dark acting place to achieve this grit are never far behind in Essex Boys. Most actors could not- or would not- say or do some of the things portrayed here. Even my Dad (who won’t watch Sharpe because he can’t picture Bean as a good guy) agrees that this is one of Bean’s hardest hitting performances among his plethora of villains.

Alex Kingston is not a traditional beauty to me, and that serves her well here. There aren’t many strong roles for older women in the US, but Kingston makes the most out of the unglamorous role of Locke’s down low wife Lisa. She’s strong, intelligent, and loyal; yet weak, stupid, and desperate at the same time. Her coyness keeps you guessing the entire film. You feel for Lisa and you hate her at the same time. In some scenes, I dare say she’s even annoying and you almost think she deserves what Jason gives to her. I don’t think Kingston had to take such an ambitious, unflattering part at the height of her ER career; but you can also see why she chose to take such a heavy and gritty role. Alex Kingston almost makes the movie, and there’s plenty of naughty bits showcased for her male fans.

I’ve seen Tom Wilkinson in a variety of roles, from The Full Monty to The Patriot. He continually surprises me with his talent and mix of humor and drama. Wilkinson has plenty of films to his credit, but I wish he did more stateside. It’s great to see him and Sean Bean onscreen together, even if it’s a violent, uneasy alliance between the two. There is a bit of dark humor in Essex Boys, but its so sardonic and even disturbing that it would actually not be funny if it weren’t for Wilkinson’s charm.

Amid all this crime and betrayal, Charlie Creed-Miles’ (The Power and the Passion of Charles II) Billy is the perfect everyman. He’s just trying to make some money and keep his girl, but he quickly sinks into an inescapable life once he meets Jason Locke. The audience can relate to Billy, yet we can see how he changes through the course of the film. He’s a little stupid or at least na├»ve to start, but by the end of the film, Billy knows all the criminal ins and outs. Holly Davidson (Causality-but more famously known as Sadie Frost’s sister) also does well in a relatively small but critical role as the object of Jason Locke’s bizarre affections. The cast is quite well rounded; and although we’re lead to believe Sean Bean is the star, nothing in Essex Boys is truly what it seems.

While Essex Boys has fine action sequences, shoot outs, and chases to supplement its intricate plot and storyline, the look of the film, is, well, less than stellar. Terry Winsor keeps his film dark, with a mostly dull palette but for some very bad clothes and set dressings. In some ways, the UK sets the bar for our American trends; but Essex Boys looks low, behind the times, stuck in this bipolar crime underworld. Flashy nightclubs, heady music, and dated styles also dampen the film’s look and feel, but this production also creates a realistic looking time capsule. We can believe that these things did indeed happen not so long ago. The low end dress and style of these folks shows us there is a reason for them to make some money and get the heck out of Dodge. Thankfully, there’s plenty of eye candy on all fronts to appease male and female viewers.

Essex Boys is certainly not for everyone. Tweens under fifteen should stay far away, and folks who don’t like British accents will most likely hate such thick dialects and regional speech. I must stress, however, that one should not let the ‘Englishness’ of Essex Boys deter one from this great movie. My bare bones DVD doesn’t have much, but it does have subtitles! Fans looking for grit and action and sex will find it all in Essex Boys. If you love any of the cast or love crime thrillers, Essex Boys is an affordable must for your collection.


JD said...

Excellent review.
I watched this, I think when it first came out on DVD. I love British Gangster films and Sean Bean.
It was interesting.

Kristin Battestella said...

Hi JD. Thanks for stopping by! Bean's so bad its good in Essex Boys.


Kristin Battestella said...

I meant to link to it and remind every body that our Sean Bean and Sharpe reviews are also available at The Mighty Bean



thebonebreaker said...

I am definitely going to have to check this one out. . .

Great review Kristin!

Kristin Battestella said...

I think its up your Alley, Bone, if you like Brit flicks. Another one that the ladies at The Mighty Bean requested, simply because the consensus is that this film deserves a wider audience. If my dad likes it, anybody will! ;0)