Cardboard Gangsters is an Irish crime drama from writer/director Mark O’Connor (King Of The Travellers) that tells a story familiar to fans of gangland movies, running through all the stereotypes and cliches that come with this oversaturated genre (which tend, in fairness, to be accurate). Thankfully the filmmakers have still managed to create a plausible and socially relevant film with an authentic grittiness and suitably dark premise, one bolstered by a strong lead performance from co-writer John Connors (Love/Hate).
On the tough Darndale council estate in Dublin, four twenty-somethings, led by local DJ and hard lad, Jay Connolly (Connors) live hand to mouth, engaging in petty drug-dealing, lifting benefits and doing whatever else to help them get by. When Jay has his benefits cut and realises that his mum has been getting loans from the local drug kingpin to pay rent, the upstart gangster decides to take a risky move into the heroin trade, knowing that they will be stepping on the toes of some very dangerous people. Jay throws caution to the wind, with potentially fatal consequences for all involved: the question is whether Jay and his friends will survive the fallout.
If I’m being honest, there isn’t much that I enjoyed for the first two-thirds of the film, even though most of the acting is spot on and there seems to be a good level of authenticity in capturing the rougher side of Dublin. The storyline is clearly derivative of the many English and American gangster films we’ve already seen, and the script, even though the native slang is captured perfectly, drifts into cliche territory, in particular with Kierston Wareing (Fish Tank) as a love interest. There is also a gratuitous and implausible feel to some of the action sequences, applying an out-of-place sheen to events, like when Jay confronts some Northern Irish/IRA-linked gangsters with a chainsaw. It felt like something out of Evil Dead 2, minus the humour.
The soundtrack, mostly naff, commercial type music, tends to be overpowering – though it’s good to see strong support for the Irish hip hop scene. Similarly, some of the cinematography feels like style over substance, the worst cases being a flashy, choreographed sequence on dirt bikes that was pointless and clearly going for a hip hop video look. A slow motion sequence of a man flinging swords, kung fu style, was reminiscent of Tony Scott on a bad day. Both these scenes were detrimental to achieving the raw feel that the filmmakers are clearly going for.
As the last half hour settles in and the whole situation for Jay and co. dives southward, Cardboard Gangsters turns into the movie that it should have been from the start. The quintet’s stark downturn in fortune moves at lightning speed and hits like a sledgehammer, putting all the previous cockiness and flash straight to bed. The vital representation of social decay and the vicious circle of violence that O’Connor and Connors are trying to make, given the spate of gangland murders that is spreading in Dublin at the moment, is well and truly achieved and is the saving grace of a film that was in danger of irrelevance. In some ways, this change of tack gives the ending a harder impact than expected and hats off to them if that is the intention.
I suspect that many people won’t have the same gripes that I have with Cardboard Gangsters, as there is no doubt that the air of authenticity is there and the last third makes it well worth a watch. It’s just a pity that it follows a very generic storyline up until the filmmaker’s vital warnings to wannabe gangsters are played out. Still, respect to O’Connor and Connors for having clearly made this on a shoestring; they deserve your attention on that point alone! Kev Lovski
Cardboard Gangsters is showing at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast and the Irish Film Institute, Dublin. The QFT screening of Friday 23rd will be introduced by star/co-writer John Connors.