Born and raised in Hackney, you can see why Idris Elba was attracted to adapting Victor Headley's novel Yardie for the big screen. Set mostly in the East London borough during the early 80s it tells the story of Dennis (Aml Ameen), a young man raised in Jamaica who comes to the capital in an attempt to start a new life after gang warfare back home has taken its toll. Elba pares down much of the violence found in Headley's writing and instead centres the story around D's internal struggle to save his own soul.
Starting with D as a boy (played by Antwayne Ecclestone) we see him back home in Kingston, Jamaica, helping his older brother Jerry Dread (Everaldo Creary) use his sound system to bring peace to the streets, as the bloodshed between two warring gangs continues to claim the lives of young innocent victims. It's a hopeful dream ruined when Jerry is gunned down by a stray bullet and we jump forward some years to find D has been taken under the wing of local drug dealer King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd).
There's no avoiding the clichés that usually come with telling a story like Yardie and it does bump into quite a few along the way. But where some films might allow them to detract from the narrative, Elba accepts them for what they and then swiftly moves on without backing himself too firmly into a corner. So once King Fox sends D over to East London to sell his coke to club owner Rico (Stephen Graham) the gangster tropes come thick and fast but hearty performances from the entire cast keeps the story alive.
D's relationship with his "real Jamaican woman" Yvonne (Shantol Jackson) proves pivotal to the dilemma he has to face over the path he should take, be it one of righteousness where he turns his back on the drug game, or one of wickedness, filled with the dirty money and murder that comes with it. Both Ameen and Jackson create a convincing, and at times intense, connection that adds a much needed aside to D's quest for vengeance over Jerry's death.
Elba made it a point to retain the use of Jamaican patois which may or may not prove problematic for some to dial into. It feels like the right choice for a film of this type which is telling a story about black Caribbean life rarely given time and space in cinema. There is also a nice snapshot of the cultural melting pot in London with D rubbing shoulders with the Turkish community while punks are seen embracing the UK reggae movement.
Stephen Graham's turn as the white East London gangster easily slipping between his cockney and Jamaican accent adds a slightly comedic tone but one that feels thoroughly convincing (despite his very English look he is also part Jamaican) and it speaks to the many white men and women born in the UK who embrace a completely different culture in its entirety. Gary Oldman's Drexl in True Romance springs to mind and Graham adds in that menacing edge he always manages to do so convincingly.
DoP John Conroy gives life to the retro settings and makes good use of the crumbling streets and estates of Hackney, while the soundtrack steadily runs through a stream of killer songs that add to Elba's consistent pacing. While it’s not a debut that shows Elba has a stronger eye than he does acting chops, Yardie suggests he has more than enough about him behind the camera to bring some interesting new stories to the screen.
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