From “Get Out” to “A Star is Born”, there seems to be an increasing trend of actors making successful transitions to directing. Making an attempt to join that growing list is Idris Elba with his directorial debut “Yardie“, which premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Based on the novel by Victor Headley, this gangster drama is rooted in the streets of Jamaica, telling a familiar tale of violence and revenge.
Indeed, the story of “Yardie” begins in 1970s Kingston, the bustling capital of Jamaica where a war between rival gangs holds an inner city community in a state of unease. Caught in the middle of this tense environment is a young boy named D and his brother and his older brother Jerry (Everaldo Creary). Desperate for a reprieve from the endless violence, Jerry proposes a truce accompanied by a festive night of music and dancing.
But when Jerry is fatally shot while trying to keep the peace, the incident sends a now wayward D into a life of crime. D is soon taken under the wing of a local drug lord named King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), never forgetting the senseless of murder of his brother. And when an unexpected opportunity arises to deliver a package of cocaine across the pond to London, he sets out on a dangerous path of revenge.
The word “yardie” is a slang term for a Jamaican and indeed, the film’s authentic Jamaican vibe is its most distinctive attribute. Steeped in the language, music, and folklore which make the island nation’s culture so vibrant and influential, the film creates a rich atmosphere. At the forefront is an impressive lead performance by Londoner Aml Ameen, whose swaggering machismo and seemingly effortless command of the expressive Jamaican dialogue is a highlight of the film.
Unfortunately, the committed performances and unique setting are wasted on a rather predictable revenge plot. Apart from Ameen and a striking turn from Shepherd as the stylish King Fox, the other characters feel too generic. Audiences familiar with the tropes of the gangster genre will easily foresee the major plot points associated with the concerned girlfriend, nefarious crime bosses and impetuous henchmen. And while the violence will get your heart racing, there’s a curious lack of tension considering D’s vulnerable status as an immigrant on the wrong side of the law. As he makes his way through this unfamiliar world, Elba’s run-of-the-mill direction struggles to convey the omnipresent anxiety and dread you would expect from such a precarious situation.
Ultimately, it is Ameen’s conviction that sells the protagonist’s journey and character arc. Like a bonafide movie star, he keeps the audience engaged to the end. In fact, Ameen’s charisma is reminiscent of his director’s prior on-screen efforts. However, on the basis of this promising but forgettable directorial effort, Elba will evidently need to hone his craft further to live up to his own reputation.
“Yardie” opens in select theaters March 15.