KERBSIDE JUSTICE : Nick Love’s ‘Outlaw’ [4/10]

Eagle-eyed viewers will notice something amiss with Outlaw from the very first frame: "A Pathe Films Presents" reads the opening title-card. This careless minor typo will no doubt be tidied up by the time the picture hits the DVD market – the arena where Nick Love's two previous films, The Football Factory (2004) and The Business (2005) became genuine cult success-stories made the vast majority of their healthy profits. But the flaws in the film itself are, unfortunately, too serious to be mouse-clicked away.

London, the present: skyscraping affluence awkwardly co-exists with poverty, grime and crime. Thirtyish Gene Dekker (Danny Dyer) is a Cockney-boy made good: employed in a white-collar job at a city firm ('Intelligent Solutions'), he drives a smart BMW convertible and lives in a riverside flat with his fiancee Kelly (Sally Bretton). Dekker should be on top of the world… but he isn't. He's deeply insecure, uncertain how to deal with what he perceives as the violent, threatening atmosphere of his environment. And when he's savagely beaten in a vicious attack after a road-rage incident, his worst nightmares are confirmed.

Via an old schoolmate – twitchy security-guard Hillier (Sean Harris) – Dekker meets several men who've also decided that 'enough is enough'. The informal, eclectic 'gang' includes black, Moslem barrister Munroe (Lennie James), whose wife and unborn child have died after a vicious attack by gangland thugs; Mardell (Rupert Friend), a wealthy student scarred for life after a vicious attack; and tough ex-para Bryant (Sean Bean), who's recently returned from Iraq to his wife in another man's arms.

It's possible that Bryant (or one of his loved ones) was, in an earlier version of Love's screenplay, also victim of a 'vicious attack' – but perhaps it was reckoned that having no less than three main characters endure such an experience got the point across. As presented in Outlaw, modern Britain is a deeply scary, dangerous, menacing, corrupt place ("it's a dirty f*ckin' world"). Stalked by feral 'hoodie' youth, this litter-strewn society is going "to hell in a handcart" – to quote the title of Daily Mail journalist Richard Littlejohn's dystopian-reactionary novel from 2001.

There's more than a whiff of Littlejohn – and fellow right-wing columnists like The Sun's Jon Gaunt – in Love's worldview: one particular incident early on is described as "a sad day in the breakdown of law and order in this country"; wrongdoers receive "a slap on the wrist" on the rare occasions that they're actually caught; the boys in blue are unable (and/or unwilling) to solve the problem – "most police couldn't lie in bed straight," according to one of their own number, disaffected, passed-over-for-promotion veteran Lewis (Bob Hoskins).

Desperate times, then, and the gang reckon that desperate solutions are required. "You've been abandoned by the powers-that-be… your cries fall on deaf ears," declaims a fired-up Bryant, "You smile mutely and pay your f*cking taxes! … I've got the confidence to fight back [against] c*nts like Blair…" Supplied with crucial intel by Lewis (the 'Bosley' to their 'Angels'), the group go after a vile criminal kingpin who's made a mockery of the justice system – and first they target is his henchman, who turns out to be the embodiment of all they detest: "The geezer's a f*ckin' nonce!" spits Lewis. "Put 'im down!"

To be fair to Love, Outlaw – while unashamedly melodramatic, contrived and manipulative in its basic set-up – doesn't glamourise or sensationalise violence: this isn't the slick 21st-century update of Michael Winner's Death Wish which Hollywood might have produced. The grimly downbeat tone – we seem to move in a miasma of incipient, major-league bloodshed – is much closer to more 'respectable' British revenge/vigilante pictures such as Shane Meadows' (superlative) Dead Man's Shoes or Andrea Arnold's (botched) Red Road – with just a touch of the tortured testosterone of David Fincher's Fight Club (but no sign of the satirical ambiguity of Stacy Title's The Last Supper, unfortunately.)

As in The Football Factory Love can't quite stop himself revelling in a good old-fashioned 'ruck' – but when punches are thrown and firearms discharged the consequences are crunchingly realistic. It's made abundantly clear that the course of action chosen by Dekker, Bryant and company takes a significant psychological toll, that the scars they're left with aren't by any means solely phusical. But Love (fatally) is torn between condemning and condoning the "Outlaw" m.o. – in much the same way that Oliver Stone's World Trade Center couldn't quite decide whether its vengeful-marine character (played by Michael Shannon) was an all-American hero or (as one onlooker put it) a "nutbag."

Hillier – known as a "complete nutter" at school, and here a rat-like loner, who appears to have a photo of London nail-bomber David Copeland next to the St George flag above his bed (the relevant shot is too brief for us to be 100% sure) – is clearly intended to handily encapsulate up all that's unsavoury and repellent about the idea of vigilantism. Bryant is very much the 'Travis Bickle' of the picture: a battle-hardened, volatile veteran who can't fit back into society (he's "completely insane" but nevertheless "speaks sense") and who's savagely impatient with the rag-tag group under his command. "You're f*ckin' useless, all o' you!" he roars after one bungled 'mission' – and for much of the running-time his barely-concealed, trembling fury seems to be shared by the film's camera-operator: even viewers accustomed to herky-jerky TV fare like 24 will have their patience tested by the modish jitteriness so frequently deployed here.

This distracting technical affectation – not to mention Love's general reliance on visual cliches and gimmicks – is much less troubling, however, than the underlying implication that it isn't the principles of the Outlaws which are at fault, rather that the problem lies with the incompetence and methods of the individuals themselves (in their pursuit of what the script calls "legitimate targets.") We're told that the gang become Robin Hood-style folk-heroes among the British populace – but we search in vain for a sensible, sympathetic, believable character. James's Cedric is by far the most articulate and intelligent of the group, but also the most implausible and tokenistic, while Dyer's Dekker ("I wanna do somethin'! I wanna be remembered!") is a mumbling cipher who ends up in such a moral haze that almost forgets about his increasingly-sidelined bride-to-be.

He makes it to the church on time, only to flee the altar in confusion (a development reminiscent of how a leading character in The Football Factory impulsively abandoned his girlfriend in favour of his boozy, blokey pals.) Both character and movie go quickly off the rails: the action climaxes in an overcooked woodland shootout (unlikely shades of Butch & Sundance) which is bad enough, but is then capped with a coda that – irresponsibly, repellently, lazily - suggests homicidal violence is, after all the anguished hand-wringing that's gone before, the ("intelligent"?) solution not only to Dekker's self-esteem problems, but also to the wider malaise supposedly afflicting British society as a whole.

Neil Young
5th March, 2007

OUTLAW : [4/10] : UK 2007 (copyright-dated 2006) : Nick LOVE : 105 mins (BBFC timing)
seen at Empire cinema, Gate complex, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (UK), 28th February 2007 – press show