If there's one bad habit the British film industry needs to kick, and fast, it's the gangster movie. Since Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels tapped into one of the most inexplicable pop-cultural zeitgeists of the late '90s, budding Mockneys have been raking in Lottery funding with their increasingly witless attempts to recapture some of Guy Ritchie's tenuous glory. This ugly trend has scarred the face of a national cinema which has actually produced a fair number of talents in the meantime, from social realist director Shane Meadows and his long-time collaborator Paddy Constantine (now an accomplished director in his own right with Tyrannosaur) to Richard Ayoade (Submarine), Joe Cornish (Attack The Block) and Ben Wheatley (Kill List), all of whom emerged in the last year alone.
Wild Bill has been marketed in the UK as a gangster movie, right down to the badly-Photoshopped poster where the protagonist holds his knuckles up to the camera, with the name of the film tattooed across them. It's no surprise its box-office has been disappointing, to put it mildly: the general public seem to be wising up to how rotten the genre has become, even whilst camera-wielding hacks continue to churn them out: David Hughes' Hard Boiled Sweets arrived in UK cinemas yesterday to a predictably scathing reception. To tar Wild Bill with such a brush, though, is doing it a major disservice: Dexter Fletcher's debut bears significantly greater similarities to Meadows than (urgh) Danny Dyer and marks yet another impressive talent to rise up from this nation's shores.
The movie does feature gangsters aplenty, though hardly the types to spout overstylised wisecracks and bear ridiculous nicknames - the eponymous Bill (played by an outstanding Charlie Creed-Miles) is the only character with such a moniker, used more as shorthand to get across his previous reputation for furious unpredictability than for Cockney credibility. These are scum of the Earth-types, working their patch of the local council estates mostly from the comfort of the grungy local pub. Resolutely unglamourised, they leave much of the dirty work to a gang of young tearaways, whom they recruit through promises of money and responsibility and control using threats against them and their loved ones.
Bill was such an enforcer before being sent down for eight years, during which time his children learnt to fend for themselves in their tiny, squalid council flat, with their mother having abandoned them several years earlier to go and live in Spain with her new lover. Older son Dean is far from pleased when his father comes staggering back into his life, drenched in booze and self-pity, and only allows him to stay after social services threaten to put the boys in a care home.
Crucially, Bill's redemption does not come through violence. The showdown at the movie's climax between he and his old partners delivers the crunching fight scene punters might have expected from the poster (it's the only one in the movie and Fletcher's bare-bones direction makes it count), but is a moment of resignation rather than glory. Bill's most admirable achievement is instead presented as his readiness to resist a return to the mob lifestyle and the (relative) riches it promises. The mob is not willing to let him go quite so easily, not least as one of the bosses has a vendetta to settle, but Fletcher gives remarkable nobility to the sight of a man standing in the rain, holding up a sign for a lowly wage whilst silently enduring the taunts of former colleagues. Dean, too, recognises the work his father is putting into bettering himself and in a powerfully understated moment of acceptance, returns from a local café during his lunch break and hands his father a cup of tea in passing.
The family dynamic is an old beat, but handled with refreshing nuance. Bill does not get an easy ride into his sons' graces, forced to take the slow road towards proving his worth as a father, provider and human being rather than allowed a quick moment of heroism to instantly right all previous wrongs. Dean, who has taken on the paternal role in Bill's absence, is furious at his father barging back into his life, seeing it as an unjustified intrusion after years of neglect and a challenge to his position as alpha-male. Will Poulter, previously accomplished as comic relief Eustace Scrubbs in the most recent Chronicles Of Narnia movie, has his face contorted in a permanent scowl, but layers his fury with enough weakness that the lost child is never far from the surface.
Youngest son Jimmy is more prepared to give his father a chance, but his trusting nature and desire to help Dean bring some money into their crumbling flat sees him exploited by the men who want to get at Bill. A character who could have been a clichéd cherub is again deftly handled, with just enough of a rebellious spirit to make sense of him succumbing to the lure of local drug dealers. Bill recognises in Jimmy the signs of where his life took a downward turn, and the moment when he opens up to his son on a rooftop, warning him of what lies ahead if he continues down the dark path, is affecting and honest because of the groundwork laid in the build-up. As Bill takes on his new responsibilities, Dean also gets a sweet storyline in the form of a blossoming romance with a local girl, giving him the chance to embrace the pleasures of growing up he was never able to whilst acting as Jimmy's sole guardian.
It's a story which often has multiple threads running at once, each tying into and having consequences for the others in logical and easily followed ways. Apart from a handful of distracting 'name' cameos (Andy Serkis, Jaime Winstone, Olivia Williams), there's barely any extraneous material from start to finish. Only hooker-with-a-heart Roxy proves a hackneyed misstep, despite Liz White's tender performance living up to her usual high standards. Having the drama play out with the construction of the new Olympic stadium in the background is a sly nod to the myth of urban regeneration, whereby the surface is cleansed but the rot continues to fester underneath, an effective parallel to Bill's own realisation of what it takes to be a good father.
If rough around the edges, Wild Bill is an engaging and focused debut from Fletcher, who restrains from the flashy direction that new filmmakers are prone to, instead making his impression through tight and perfectly paced writing and excellent performances from his entire cast. Though more traditional than the post-modern Attack The Block or genre-bending Kill List, the movie marks the emergence of another vivid voice in British cinema, offering a fresh twist on the ages old 'deadbeat dad done good' parable and an emotionally raw revision of the creatively exhausted gangster movie.