Outlaw should be one of the most provocative films of the year. It's a British vigilante thriller that taps into the national mood - into the strong feelings many of us hold about the rise in violent crime over recent years and the failure of our politicians and our legal system to deal with those responsible.
These topics and opinions are frequently in the papers, on the radio and on television but it's rare to see British cinema raise them. When we make issue films, they're almost always from a liberal-left perspective. When they deal with crime, it's usually to plead for sympathy for the criminals. Conservative leader David Cameron cited last year's drama Kidulthood as the inspiration for his infamous "hug a hoodie" speech.
Writer-director Nick Love however is a loose cannon amongst British film-makers - his movies are unashamedly populist and anti-establishment. The Football Factory and The Business deal with football hooliganism and cocaine smuggling but they're anything but social commentaries. They have more in common with the sort of ghost-written criminal autobiographies that fly off the shelves of the True Crime section - the sort written by blokes with names like Nosher - and they have the same guilty appeal.
Of his films so far, Outlaw has the most serious intentions. Love says he was inspired to write it when he heard about the case of a student who was given a vicious beating by thugs who simply didn't like the look of him. So derisory were their sentences that the student was still in hospital from the beating when they were released. A story like that makes most of us angry and the first and best half of Outlaw does a decent job of capturing that anger and the fear beneath it of becoming helpless victims ourselves.
Sean Bean plays Bryant, a British paratrooper who's returned from service in Afghanistan and Iraq to find his wife in the arms of another man and his country overrun by arrogant thugs unafraid of the law. Homeless and filled with pent-up frustration, he moves into a cheap hotel where he cleans his collection of guns and plots revenge against society.
Through the security guard at the hotel, a creepy armchair Rambo called Hillier (Sean Harris), Bryant assembles a gang of like-minded men from all walks of life. There's Gene (Danny Dyer), a young city boy tired of being bullied at work and on the street; Cedric (Lennie James), a black barrister terrorised by a gangster he's trying to put away; Sandy (Rupert Friend) a Cambridge scholar left scarred for life by yobs.
With Bryant as their svengali, these men channel their fear and desperation into fury and they decide to fight back. Support comes from an unlikely quarter: Lewis (Bob Hoskins), a disillusioned policeman learns what they're planning and offers to supply information on criminals who are going unpunished. Bryant's gang will do what the police and the courts won't.
This is incendiary material and you wonder what Love will do with it. Will Outlaw be a call to arms for British citizens fed up with crime? Will it be a wish-fulfillment fantasy like the Death Wish movies and their imitators? Will it be a cautionary tale like The Star Chamber, warning us that no matter how much the system is screwed up, death squads are not the answer? Will it be a psychological study of men giving in to their inner rage like Straw Dogs and Falling Down?
The answer is that Outlaw is none of those things and I'm not even sure exactly what it is supposed to be. After priming us for an hour with atrocities - a woman stabbed by gangsters, a man brutally beaten in a road rage attack - and much talk of injustice and the need for retaliation, the film skips quickly through the vigilante attacks as if they were incidental and not what we came to see. There's one effective scene in a pub where the men stand up to a group of racist thugs who pick on Cedric but the rest is unsatisfying.
The "outlaws" beat up a couple of hoodies and jump some drug dealers, then there's a wildly unconvincing scene where they graduate to the armed robbery of a drug courier and that's about it. If you were looking forward to the vicarious pleasure of watching villains get mashed by Sean Bean, forget it. Get yourself a copy of Death Wish.
Instead of dealing with its characters' actions and taking a stance on them, Outlaw goes off on a tangent. It gets bogged down in a confused and derivative crime plot in which the vigilante gang squabble amongst themselves and end up on the wrong side of crooked cops and a vengeful mob boss. The final act is like a low-rent version of The Departed.
Nick Love is a good director. While he's obviously studied Martin Scorsese and Danny Boyle quite closely, his films are slickly made and visually interesting, and he works well with actors - Sean Bean is magnetic here. Love has yet to make a film that's boring to watch.
It's as a writer that he lets himself down. His scripts are poorly structured; his handling of character development is abysmal. The biggest problem with Outlaw is the portrayal of the gang. How do they feel about what they're doing? How do they feel about each other? This should be the heart and soul of the film but it's hardly there.
What we do see doesn't make sense - Sandy can't bring himself to hurt the thugs who beat him up but a few scenes later, he's taking part in the armed robbery. This scene comes out of nowhere. Obviously it's a huge step up from beating up yobs and dealers - don't the gang have reservations about getting killed or facing stiff prison sentences? What do they think about using guns, which most of them would never even have fired before? It's not on the screen.
Since we don't share the outlaws' feelings about being vigilantes, we don't feel involved. In previous movies, Nick Love has papered over these sorts of dramatic gaps with extensive narration by his regular star Danny Dyer. This time, dropping the voice-over, he's laid bare a total shambles of a narrative.
Important plot points aren't properly explained. I realised only towards the end that Love apparently thinks the entire British police force is bent. Bob Hoskins has a speech half way through complaining that he hasn't been promoted because he does things "by the book". This can be interpreted in many ways (Is he talking about internal politics? Is he just making excuses?) but what Love means is that the rest of the cops are in the gangsters' pockets. Did the director just assume this is what we all think?
As for the outlaws themselves, Bryant is an enigma, although Sean Bean brings plenty of charisma to the role. Cedric is too clichéed a character. Sandy is barely in the film. It's never explained why the obviously psychotic Hillier is allowed in the group in the first place and the scene where he's finally dropped is badly handled. The only decently developed character is Gene, but the chirpy Danny Dyer is the wrong actor for the part. It's hard to accept him as initially shy and introverted.
Outlaw is a frustrating film because it raises serious, interesting issues and it doesn't deal with them. It spends an hour building up tension and it lets it dissipate. It gives us five potentially interesting characters and it doesn't develop them. Not for the first time with Nick Love, the verdict is great concept, shoddy execution.