Straddling the intersection of drug dealing and the music industry, “Yardie,” the big-screen directing debut of the actor Idris Elba, struggles to carve a path between warring gangs and reggae beats.
Leaping from 1970s Jamaica to 1980s London, the story follows D (Aml Ameen), a drug courier and aspiring music artist who arrives in Hackney with a package for Rico (the reliable Stephen Graham, whose queasily hilarious performance of cultural appropriation is mitigated by his Jamaican heritage). But D, in a pointlessly stupid move that endangers his newly rediscovered childhood sweetheart (an excellent Shantol Jackson) and their young daughter, decides to give his package to the Turks instead.
That’s only the first in a string of imbecilic choices that D, consumed by the desire to avenge the years-ago murder of his brother, makes as he knocks around the Hackney club scene and precipitates a gang war. Neither likable nor remotely worthy, the character is a huge problem for the movie, as is Brock Norman Brock and Martin Stellman’s scattered screenplay (adapted from Victor Headley’s novel), which leans much too heavily on D’s voice-over narration.
At the same time, “Yardie” (the title is Jamaican patois for a gang member) has something to say about the way immigrants can become trapped in the loyalties and vendettas of their homelands. Elba grew up in Hackney, and also worked as a D.J., and his familiarity with the community is visible in the movie’s evocation of a tumultuous world suffused with lowlife scheming and thumping tunes. John Conroy’s cinematography hustles and heaves, straining to inject a vitality that the story too often lacks. Yet whether in the kaleidoscopic warmth of Jamaica or the gray chill of London, “Yardie”’s sunlight-filled songs will make your toes twitch.
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Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes.
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