Plenty of successful actors have gone on to become successful directors. Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Danny DeVito, and Denzel Washington are all accomplished filmmakers, with distinct interests and sensibilities. If they were not recognized as actors, their work behind the camera would still cement them in the annals of moviemaking. Yardie, the new gangster drama from Idris Elba, attempts to carry in that tradition. The trouble is that Elba’s instincts are all wrong, or undeveloped. His film is riddled with more cliches than bullets, to the point where any casual genre fan will see the “twists” coming long before the characters do. There is not even much promise for him as a filmmaker, as his primary strategy is borrow from other, more accomplished gangster films.
Yardie has a cast of unknowns, and none of them match Elba’s natural talents. The opening section has echoes of City of God: we meet D (Aml Ameen), a young man living in the outskirts of Kingston. He struggles to make ends meet as violent gangs tear the city apart, and when his peacemaking brother (Everaldo Creary) dies in the crossfire, he swears revenge. There are few legitimate opportunities, so D becomes a lieutenant in a local gang. Soon D leaves Kingston for London, with drugs in tow, and he tries to offload pure cocaine to the highest bidder. You won’t be surprised to the mother of D’s child also lives in London, so the film follows him as he tries to balance family and gangster life.
While the film is in English, most of Yardie requires subtitles. Many of the characters speak with Jamaican accents, in a dialect that combines slang with recognizable words (this is not the first English film to do this, as the Scottish thriller Red Road also had dialogue in accents so thick subtitles were necessary). D and the others may live in England, but the film suggests they may always be an “other.” In fact, Yardie has so few characters that the melodrama unfolds simply because there is nowhere else for the story to go. Of course, D confronts his brother’s killer in London. Of course, the reasons for the killing call D to question his past. A good drama can make inevitable twists seem like destiny, or have them be emotionally devastating. This film ends where it does seemingly by default.
One strange thing about this film is that we never truly understand these characters. D provides voice over for a large chunk of the film, rationalizing his every decision and giving insight into Jamaican culture. This overabundance of detail leaves more questions than answers: what does D really want? what is his endgame? If he’s such a good rapper, why doesn’t he start a music career? Yardie is more about attitude than human nature, so genuine insight is not a primary concern. It does not help that Ameen, along with the other actors, wander through the story like impostors who know you can see through them.
As a filmmaker, Elba’s instincts are always for the most obvious. Every shot, camera cue, and cut is predictable, to the point where your expectations will deflate in the first fifteen minutes, and never recover. There are chases and shootouts, although they’re filmed in a way that shows no interest in storytelling or suspense. It is a shame, since a story of English immigrants acclimating to life in London could have had real resonance today. Instead, we are left with an important, albeit sad reminder about how making movies is tough. Like directorial talent, on-screen charisma is not a thing you can teach. You either have it, or you do not.