London Boulevard” starts off with a premise worthy of any British crime film: Hard man Mitchel (Colin Farrell) is just out of prison, after serving time for murder, and he’s not eager to go back in. His sketchy South London friend Billy (Ben Chaplin), however, welcomes him back with open arms and pressures him to provide some muscle for his loan-sharking operation.
Meanwhile, cinema superstar Charlotte (Keira Knightley) has been tabloid fodder for so long that she’s bugged out, too paranoid to leave her high-walled London manor, and besieged by a continuous pack of braying paparazzi with zoom lenses. Her only company is her drug-addled platonic friend Jordan (David Thewlis), who’s looking for someone to handle security at her home, which is where Mitchel comes in. So far, so good.
Intriguing complications arise: Mitchel’s sister, Briony (Anna Friel), is a promiscuous alcoholic with a nose for trouble, and Billy’s psychotic boss, Gant (Ray Winstone), makes Mitchel an offer he can’t refuse to run some of his territory. Will Mitchel manage to go straight — and find a future with Charlotte, to whom he’s attracted — or will he wind up being a thug the rest of his life? And will the viewer, who’s seen this sort of thing play out in a dozen other hardboiled neo-noirs, find anything new here?
Screenwriter-turned-director William Monahan tries to work the same magic he did with “The Departed,” where his adaptation of the Hong Kong hit “Infernal Affairs” earned him an Oscar for Best Writing. But Monahan is from Boston — Dorchester, actually, a neighborhood the locals refer to affectionately as “Dirty Dot” — and his familiarity with the milieu certainly informed that script. He has no such luck in adapting Irish crime novelist Ken Bruen’s work here, making even Woody Allen’s superficial foray into South London crime (“Cassandra’s Dream”) seem deep in comparison.
Farrell gives his best hard-nut impression, doing a decent job of convincing you that he’s the guy in the room you don’t want to lock eyes with, yet smart enough to be scared of his own capability for violence. Knightley is brittle and intense behind her bangs, yet never quite giving us the Amy Winehouse level of dysfunction that the role seems to call for. But the bigger problem, by far, is that Knightley and Farrell absolutely fail to generate any heat together on screen.
I’ve seen both of them smolder in the past — Farrell going all puppy-dog-eyed with Q’orianka Kilcher in his arms in “The New World”; Knightley clinging possessively to Andrew Garfield in “Never Let Me Go” — so it is possible. The viewer asks a basic question, though — what attracts these two people? — and the script, the performances, provide no answer. Why exactly would a celeb who’s desperate to stay out of the tabloids start an affair with a convicted murderer? Well, because the plot needs that to happen. The pointed, sparring dialogue — cinema’s idea of romantic foreplay — just falls entirely flat, but really, even George Clooney couldn’t have salvaged it.
This all compares rather poorly with “The Bank Job” (2008), where Jason Statham and Saffron Burrows — generally considered the B-list compared with the cast of “London Boulevard” — sold you on their relationship in a minute, and generated some real emotion. It’s the difference between a film that understands how people are, and one that’s merely aping scenes from other movies, a reflection of a reflection.
“The Bank Job” also had a great retro feel, effortlessly evoking such classics as “Get Carter,” something which the Yardbirds soundtrack in “London Boulevard” promises but fails to deliver. What we do get is plenty of the post-Tarantino scenes of some sadistic gangster mouthing off at length before torturing someone when Mitchel attends a friend’s funeral.
There’s also a postmodern Tarantino-esque line in having the characters comment ironically on movies, even as they exist in one; Knightley complains about her job as an actress, bemoaning the fact that “a woman is there to get the hero to talk about himself,” while Thewlis — who’s performing above and beyond the call of duty here — gets the line, “I’m a trained actor; I don’t feel anything about anything.” “London Boulevard” will likely leave most viewers agreeing.