Contents of the film aside, open of the distinct joys of watching Yardie is listening to the characters speak. The entire film is spoken in a Jamaican patois that is part English and part local colloquialism. There’s a flow to it that lends itself to good drama. Even when the words are all but nonsense to a non-native speaker, the energy with which it is performed is never betrayed. With that said, I’m happy that the producers saw fit to slap some subtitles on this one —a decision made after a handful of festival complaints —because without them, certain things would most definitely have been lost.
What is never lost is the energy and the genuineness of the cultures being portrayed. I don’t know much about Idris Elba’s heritage, but it’s easy to sense a personal connection, or at least a well-researched reverence, to the material he’s chosen for his directorial debut. Adapted from Victor Headley’s 1992 novel, Yardie is the type of simple crime thriller that few filmmakers could screw up: Impoverished boy can’t escape the slums, rises in the world of crime, things don’t go as planned. It’s Diet City of God, and for what it’s worth, it works. It’s got a few problems, most of which can be attributed to having been made by a first time filmmaker, but even so, Elba has chosen the right material with which to introduce himself as a talent behind the camera. What I mean is that Yardie is safe on paper but filled with plenty of opportunities into which an engaged filmmaker can insert some style.
Elba finds and embraces many of these opportunities, beginning at the outset of the film, which takes the form of an extended prologue. We center on Dennis “D” Campbell (Antwayne Eccleston), a young boy in Kingston Jamaica in the 1970s. The area is run by dueling gangs, and violence has become a way of life. D’s older brother Jerry Dread (Everaldo Creary) aims to bring positivity into his hometown, and spends his nights emceeing pop-up musical events. When one of these events goes horribly awry, placing both Jerry and D in grave danger, it becomes clear that the powers that be will not give up their ways without a fight. And if you can’t beat em…
The film moves ahead a decade, placing D (now portrayed by Aml Ameen) in London. As the right hand man for one of his hometown’s most prominent gangs, he has been sent to England to move a large amount of cocaine. It’s supposed to be a quick drop, but D takes issue with the man he’s supposed to deliver it to, and decides to forge out on his own. Naturally, this causes a whole host of problems both for D and for his young, semi-estranged family.
By taking every opportunity to infuse the film with catchy, not-often-seen-in-film music and the energy of both the underground nightlife and the Jamaican ex-pats amidst it, Elba keeps Yardie interesting, even when he struggles to maintain a narrative rhythm. As I said before, the pleasure of listening to the dialogue is certainly enough to pave over the disparate nature of many scenes, but it still points to a missed opportunity. The plot itself has enough basic verve to propel itself, yet the uneven pacing gets in the way. Would a simple rearrangement of scenes work better? Perhaps some slick shaves in the editing room? Well, I couldn’t tell you. What I could tell you is that between the heavier moments of drama, or the punctuations of extreme violence, there were times where I found myself asking “why are we stopping here?” It’s not a hard film to predict plot-wise, so when it’s not aggressively popping off, it tends to feel like it’s shuffling through well-worn territory.
No matter, the pacing issues don’t subtract from the energy, nor do they offset the enjoyment of the film in a condemnable degree. Yardie, despite being very much like many films, is still enough of its own thing to be worthwhile. It all comes down to effort. Elba had every opportunity to phone this one in but he thankfully chose to give it his all. Perhaps next time he gets behind the camera, his “all” will have grown into even more. Perhaps his daring creative choices will assign themselves to a more daring project. Based on the promise of Yardie, I’ll certainly be there to see it. And no, Elba does not make a cameo. Probably for the better, as his inherent star power would be distracting.
Note: Elba himself said he hoped people would see his movie and would want to visit Jamaica as a result. On that front, mission accomplished!
Currently running at Ritz at the Bourse. landmarktheatres.com