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Idris Elba Directs an Uneven Jamaican Gangster Flick

Yardie is the feature directorial debut from British actor Idris Elba. A period gangster drama set in Jamaica and England, the film is adapted from Victor Headley’s bestselling crime novel. The music and cultural elements are striking. Elba vividly depicts ghetto life in the two countries. The faults lie in persistent narration, an uneven script, and a clumsy third act. Yardie will have your head bopping to the great reggae soundtrack, but unfortunately comes up short in many places.

Yardie is a slang term for a Jamaican abroad. The film opens in 1973 Kingston, where two warring gangs have riddled the Trench Town neighborhood with violence. A peacemaking DJ, Jerry Dread (Everaldo Creary), tries to bring the factions together. His noble efforts end tragically, leaving his despondent younger brother, “D” (Antwayne Eccleston), alone. The boy is taken in by the gangster King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), who teaches him to survive on the streets.

Ten years later, a grown D (Aml Ameen), is a trusted soldier for King Fox; who has expanded into a record label and cocaine dealing. D is sent to London to grow the drug business. His arrival doesn’t go according to plan. D steals from King Fox’s partner (Stephen Graham), while attempting to reconnect with his ex-girlfriend (Shantol Jackson) and their daughter (Myla-Rae Hutchinson-Dunwell). Just when he thinks London couldn’t get more complicated, D realizes a long sought after enemy is also there.

Related: Idris Elba’s Directorial Debut Yardie Goes to Rialto Pictures

Let’s start with what works. In full transparency, I am a Jamaican, born during this time, and was curious how Idris Elba would handle the violence that tore Kingston apart during the seventies. He pulls no punches. Elba shows the unvarnished death and tragedy. These early scenes are stark building blocks for the characters. When the adult D lands in the cold, rainy London, he fits right into the Jamaican immigrant community. The music and culture that the Jamaicans brought became an indelible part of British society. Idris Elba’s best moments as director is accurately portraying ghetto life in two vastly different countries.

The soundtrack for Yardie is a high point. From the roots reggae of the seventies, to the dancehall MCs of the eighties, the music in Yardie is essential to understanding the characters. Jamaican reggae music took the world by storm. The transcendent lyrics and beats were a window into the soul of the country and its people. D aspires to make music like his brother. A subplot has D taking this dream to London and the local dancehall “clashes”. Idris Elba is also a renowned DJ. He brings the infectious energy of the dancehall to the big screen.

Yardie has nonstop voice over narration. This is a sign of a weak script and becomes a crutch for the plot. D literally explains every major development from beginning to end. The constant droning kills the lead into the third act. By this point, the resolve is obvious and the characters are going through the motions. The only thing that kept my interest in the finale was the music. The drug dealing and revenge subplot basically fizzles.

Yardie is subtitled because of the Jamaican patois and heavy British slang. Idris Elba does a good job with cultural realism. The crime and interpersonal drama isn’t nearly as successful. I’ll give Yardie a slightly positive nod for bringing a Jamaican novel to life. These stories are rarely told. Yardie is a Warp Films production with distribution by Rialto Pictures and Studio Canal.

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