Is there a sub-genre with a reputation worse than the British gangster film at the moment? Granted the occasional gem appears once in a while but for longer than I care to remember an unhealthy percentage of releases have been of middling quality, go straight to the supermarket shelves and are (or look as though they are) riddled with clichés, many of which I’m sure you’ll be familiar with: shotgun-toting cockney geezers, scenes in strip clubs, Eastern European criminals, corrupt police officers (aka ‘bent coppers’) and young, up-and-coming protagonists are usually the order of the day, and if you’re really unlucky you might catch a film containing all of the above and an appearance by Vinnie Jones. Little wonder they’re mercilessly lampooned by sketches such as this one.
Gerard Johnson’s Hyena contains several of these tropes but is much better than such a statement suggests, and has more in common with downbeat dramas like Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa, David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises and Paul Andrew Williams’ London To Brighton than, say, Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. The story revolves around a corrupt drug squad officer by the name of Michael Logan (Peter Ferdinando), who hoovers up the spoils of his raids with three racist, coke-fiend colleagues (played by Neil Maskell, Gordon Brown and Tony Pitts); we are introduced to them as they shake down a west London nightclub and dish out a few unnecessarily brutal beatings to the patrons, owners and staff, which seems to be a ‘normal’ night’s work for these officers, each of whom seems to have rejected the idea of a moral code being at all relevant to the job at hand. Logan’s superiors turn a blind eye to his criminal activities because they’re more concerned with meeting monthly arrest quotas, and he is instrumental in helping them achieve their targets. However he does have enemies within the Met: Richard Dormer’s smug CID Detective Inspector is out to get him, for one, as is Stephen Graham’s grudge-bearing former partner, who re-enters Logan’s life as a superior officer.
At the beginning of the story, which was also written by Johnson, Logan is about to go into business with a Turkish drug dealer when a pair of rival Albanian thugs suddenly appear and violently put an end to such plans. Much of the plot involves Logan’s subsequent dealings with this pair of drug- and human-trafficking psychopaths, played by Orli Shuka and Gjevat Kelmendi, and their relationship eventually turns sour after the policeman uncharacteristically tries to help Alina (Elisa Lasowski), a woman who has been smuggled into the UK for prostitution.
So yeah, Hyena‘s subject matter is grim, and several disturbing scenes lie within its 110 minutes, but the comparisons that have been made between Johnson’s film and the work of Nicolas Winding Refn seem wide of the mark to me. One or two shots here are gratuitous, but we’re talking about fleeting moments, and although the depiction of violence towards women (and prostitutes in particular) is understandably unpleasant to watch it should be noted that Johnson sought the input of Eaves, a charity that offers support for vulnerable women, while making the film. Similarly while this has been somewhat predictably referred to as ‘England’s Bad Lieutenant‘ because of its amoral central character, it’s actually far closer in tone to those films mentioned a couple of paragraphs above than any American release I can think of.
There’s a suitably moody, synth-heavy soundtrack by Matt Johnson (credited to his old band, The The) while cinematographer Benjamin Kračun shoots London as a gloomy city, pallid during the day and reliant on flashes of neon for colour at night, while in terms of locations the director generally opts for nondescript roads, Brutalist tower blocks, betting shops and rancid, smoke-stained pubs (each of which seems to have held out thus far against the jointly-spreading viruses of beards and craft beer); even the more lively and colourful environs of Soho’s Old Compton Street carry an unfamiliar menace here. In truth I haven’t seen London look this London on the big screen for quite some time, even though I’m hardly au fait with the seedy underbelly depicted or the activities that take place.
The story does drift a little at times and an attempt at an ambiguous ending sadly misses the mark, but Hyena still sits ahead of the pack thanks to its stylish look and its effective performances. Johnson even finds time for a dash of humour: at one point when the Albanians are waiting for Logan to return to his flat they watch an old Norman Wisdom film on TV; bizarrely Wisdom became incredibly popular in Albania as he was one of the few Western actors whose films were played in the country during the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.
Directed by: Gerard Johnson.
Written by: Gerard Johnson.
Starring: Peter Ferdinando, Stephen Graham, Neil Maskell, Orli Shuka, Gjevat Kelmendi, Elisa Lasowski, MyAnna Buring, Richard Dormer, Gordon Brown, Tony Pitts.
Cinematography: Benjamin Kračun.
Editing: Ian Davies.
Music: The The.
Running Time: 112 minutes.