I was lucky enough to catch a preview screening of Gerard Johnson's second full feature, Hyena, yesterday and I'm happy to say, it's bloody good. Discerning fans of Brit Crime cinema will be well aware that there are only a handful of truly good films and a whole heap of efforts that are either mediocre or treat the dark side of human nature as just an excuse for entertainment. A certain Mr Ritchie did the genre no favours and it has been trying to recover ever since. Happy to say then, that there are no cliched cockney gangsters here, no glamorisation, no winners, just losers. Hyena may not be on a par with Get Carter but it stands up tall next to it and certainly merits entry to the select club of crime dramas that actually matter.
Plot-wise it is fairly straightforward though diverting enough in sub-plot to keep you on your toes. Bent coppers are nothing new of course but I do think this is a timely inclusion to that sub-genre, knowing as we do the almost endemic levels of corruption that have recently been revealed to be running through London's finest like letters through a stick of rock. The nature of crime has changed significantly since the collapse of the Soviet Empire and the brutal carve-up of what was once Yugoslavia. So Hyena's main protagonist, Michael (Peter Ferdinando), is dealing in turn with Turkish and then Albanian gangs, rather than the East End or Maltese villains of yore. The latter gang, led by the psychopathic Kabashi brothers (Orli Shuker and Gejevat Kelmendi - as menacing a double act as I can remember) enter the picture as a result of dispatching Michael's Turkish - ahem - business partner, in no-nonsense fashion. This occurs near the beginning of the film, after an opening that sees Michael and his fellow cops carry out a raid on a lap-dancing club in order to relieve the criminal owners of their drugs and cash. With the Albanians entering the picture things suddenly get heavy. To add to the tension, Michael also has to deal with the attentions of his old police partner David Knight (Stephen Graham), and besuited nemesis Nick Taylor (Richard Dormer) as an internal net appears to be closing in on the activities of him and his little gang. The final complication, and one that drives the plot to its conclusion, is the arrival into the story of Ariana (Elisa Lasowski), one of the Albanian's trafficked women.
The direction is assured and honest. Johnson isn't afraid to tip his hat to his influences and inspirations, as all good directors will do, but this is a performance of balance and maturity. Though the viewer will side with Michael we are under no allusions that he is the architect of his own downfall. The characters that illicit sympathy in the film are the women and children. The roles of the female leads (MyAnna Buring plays Lisa, Michael's girlfriend) are slight compared to the men but I didn't see this as a problem, more a reflection of the world of crime itself where women and children always suffer for the sins of the men. In a scene at a traditional Albanian celebration a young girl asks her father to dance with her, only to be dismissed because the adult men have 'important' things to attend to. It is a brief flicker in a long film but the point is made at least, and it isn't laboured. Childhood innocence is one thing, but as adults can we afford to be so naive? This is how the world is and we walk past it and through it every day in the big city.
It is the city that is perhaps the real star - London specifically, and this time we are in the down-at-heel environs of West London. Benjamin Kracun has done a sterling job with his cinematography to bring Johnson's love of London to the big screen in all its neon glory. The night shots are sumptuous and the panoramic views aren't just for eye-candy but remind us of the scale of this city, and in a way the scale of the problem. This is the city the viewer can easily identify with - one scene in particular when Michael runs from danger brings this home as he crosses a residential road. It is night. The streets are deserted. Inside these flats and houses people are sleeping and most of them will be joining the rush hour in a few more hours, on their way to work. But on the doorstep exists the underworld of drugs, sex-trafficking and ultra violence. It is right here, right now, hidden in plain sight.
The soundtrack too is excellent, Matt Johnson's best yet and certainly the most mature and well-realised. Added to this is good acting throughout, particularly from Peter Ferdinando in the lead role who gives a convincing performance of a man having the ultimate bad day at the office. He resists the temptation to grandstand and manages to pull of the trick of eliciting our sympathy whilst constantly reminding us that character he is playing is a fuck-up. Once his control of his situation is lost by the arrival of the Albanian brothers we get to watch him trying to regain that self-composure and never quite managing. When he boasts about his gang being 33, 000 strong it comes across as desperate act of bravado - an empty boast in terms of his actual safety, though this quip has a sly double-life that serves to remind the viewer that what this film is actually about is the complete failure of those employed to protect us from being able to do so, or even want to. Make no mistake, this is a dark film. There is one disturbing scene that will make you feel particularly uncomfortable, but it is very well handled. Johnson doesn't shy away from the grim reality of the seedy underbelly of our city - if anything he probably shows a level of restraint, with much of the violence happening off-screen or obscured.
If you enjoy a level of realism in crime cinema and have the stomach for the darkness of this reality, then you will certainly enjoy Hyena. Most of you are going to have to wait until March 2015 to get the chance to see it but I think aficionados of the genre will be as impressed as I was.