A small-imprint–published slab of pulp fiction that became a huge literary sensation, Victor Headley’s 1992 novel Yardie drops readers into a London filled with ex-pat Jamaican kingpins, gang wars, alleyway assassinations and an antihero — “D.,” short for Dennis — who works his way up the underworld ladder. The writing was rough-and-ready straightforward, without the tough-guy stylistics of a Chandler or an Ellroy; the patois-heavy prose felt like it both represented Britain’s West Indian community and gave the rise-and-fall narrative a unique edge. An under-served demographic of readers found the book not through stores but via set-ups outside concert halls and hair salons, though representation hunger wasn’t the only reason for its runaway success. Peruse the first few pages, which follows D. as he smuggles a kilo of coke through Heathrow airport and ditches the men meant to pass the package long, and its obvious why folks responded to the sheer forward momentum of it. You can definitely see why Idris Elba would love the book as well, especially since (but not solely because) he’d have made a killer Dennis around the time his run on The Wire ended.
Elba doesn’t star in the adaptation of the crime-fic classic hitting theaters this week; it is, however, the actor’s directorial debut. And it’s a little hard not to bemoan what might have been had he starred in a big-screen take on the book back in the mid Aughts with another person calling the shots. (Though honestly, would you want to take on another up-and-coming-criminal role after Stringer Bell?) That’s not a knock on Aml Ameen, the performer who plays D. — he’s got screen presence to spare. It’s just that, for all of the movie’s sound and fury, the gunplay and rage and vendettas and booming reggae music and Scarface-like power plays, there’s a curious lack of dynamism from start to finish. The film is crammed with incident yet curiously inert at times when it should be ripping and roaring. It needs someone like Elba to add that extra movie-star something in front of the camera and a more visionary voice behind it in order to make the affair feel like more than just another (im)morality tale. Headley’s book is a hard nugget crackling with urgency. This feels like soft-boiled pulp.
Before we get to to see Dennis entering Londontown circa ’83 with a chip on his shoulder and coke strapped to his thigh, Yardie takes us back to Trenchtown in ’73. That’s where a young Dennis (Antwayne Eccleston) finds himself caught in the crossfire between local crimelords Skeets (Rayon McClean) and King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd). His brother, Jerry Dread (Everaldo Cleary), runs a sound system; during a concert, the D.J. makes both warring factions shake hands, thus beating the famous Bob Marley “One Love Peace Concert” moment by five years. Then a bullet takes Jerry down. A decade later, D. has grown up under Fox’s care, working Kingston’s streets for him. As a favor for his father figure — and so he won’t keep beating up henchmen of potential partners — he agrees to go to London to make a drop. The fact that his wife (Shantol Jackson) and daughter have already resettled there in such of a better life only sweetens the deal. Once D. gets there, he realizes that he can turn the trip into a business-expansion opportunity for the merging yuppie class. Money, power and domesticity beckon. And once Dennis discovers that Jerry’s killer now lives in Old Blighty as well, so does revenge.
From here, we settle into several familiar grooves involving our man making a name for himself, tracking down the triggerman so he can settle a score, proving to his lady love that drug-dealing and blood killings won’t necessarily affect their happy home and avoiding thugs who are threatening his family unless he returns some stolen product. There’s also a big sound system subplot, which peaks with a showdown near the end and features Dennis taunting a coked-up Little Caesar via a wicked put-down toast (Martin Stellman, the scribe behind the definitive British reggae movie of that period Babylon, is a co-writer, so no surprise there). That bad guy, by the way, is played by Stephen Graham, a Cagney-like fireplug of an actor and a familiar face if you’ve seen Lock, Stock and Two Barrels (1999) or Boardwalk Empire. His gangster, Rico, is a blow-snorting, patois-speaking monster with a wicked perm, and the sort of livewire scenery-chewer that gives the film a 10cc injection of WTF every time he shows up. You can also credit Ameen, a solid presence on British TV and in movies for over a decade, for giving the sort of dangerous, determined performance that makes you want to nudge American casting agents.
Past those factors, Yardie doesn’t distinguish itself as either a cult-cinema counterpart to the book or a new addition to the crime-flick canon. It just sort of sits there, waiting to come alive (which it occasionally, temporarily does) or come together as a whole (nope). There’s no doubt Elba has a good movie or three in him — he’s too talented not to translate his ability to hold a screen or let you sense a character’s shifting thought process into a filmmaking sensibility. But the rush of Headley’s storytelling is A.W.O.L. Only the vocabulary and vintage decor remains.