By Matt Keay @MattAdamKeay
In the opening minutes of Gerard Johnson’s sophomore effort, Hyena, the audience is presented with a bravura neon-lit nighttime raid, set against foreboding music, a sense of dread permeating the screen. The men they see appear to be policeman, but they are so far removed from the friendly beat bobbies the majority of the public recognise that they could be forgiven for expecting their uniforms to be some sort of disguise; a ruse for nefarious criminal activities. The policeman explode into violence, cutting down all in their path. They are intimidating, ruthless men, and the mood is set.
Juxtapose this with the second scene; the same men, in a pub, post-raid, laughing and joking amid an avalanche of expletives and Sylvester’s disco classic ‘Do Ya Wanna Funk?’ (used to far better effect in Trading Places). There is camaraderie here, a close bond between brothers. The mood is light. The neon is gone. The danger has dissipated. These men are still intimidating, still ruthless, but we are now expected to like them, to root for them?
Set in London in what seems to be the present, Hyena (so-called because the animal in question is a scavenger that runs with the pack) follows Michael (an impressive Peter Ferdinando), a cocaine-addicted detective, as he straddles the murky underbelly of the city, at once interested in both getting a cut of the increasingly successful Albanian criminals’ spoils and protecting a particular girl, Ariana (Elisa Lasowski), from being further trafficked into sex slavery in the capital. Added to this, his former colleague, David (Stephen Graham, who deserves much better than this), threatens to expose his dealings. The remainder of the cast is a mixed bunch of woefully underused actors (Neil Maskell, for instance, is wasted), and it’s a mix of renegade cop cliché, with a hint (not nearly enough, mind), of social commentary.
See, this is the problem I had with Hyena. It is confused, and downright refuses to make any of the characters even marginally likeable, much less attempting to provide the viewer with any kind of characterisation, save a short scene between Ferdinando and Graham highlighting a conflict in their history. One thing is clear; in Johnson’s London, there are no good guys. The film is brutal, unforgiving, and brimming with strangely muddled machismo.
There were aspects of the film, however, that I did like. The soundtrack by new wave act The The is a thumping, febrile, electronic powerhouse, adding to the unrelenting agitation of the narrative, and there is a humour, (however pitch black), to the script, that elevates it over similar fare (there is a supremely obscure reference to the love affair Albania has with Norman Wisdom at the very end of the film that very almost compromises the growing tension, but just about recovers). Additionally, the histrionic in the extreme, controversial ending which seemed to divide audiences at the Toronto Film Festival, I found enlightening, and a fitting close, but I won’t say any more…
Hyena is a frustrating film. At times, it shows real promise, with an almost Gaspar Noé-esque application of lighting, (however, unfortunately, the film is just too dark, and it was very difficult to even make out what was happening during large portions of the film), and there are occasions when real dread is felt, but ultimately it is your average British gangster fare, with huge debts to Nicholas Winding Refn, Ben Wheatley, and The Long Good Friday. There are great films about cockney criminal goings-on, but I can’t help but think that (though highly watchable) this isn’t one of them. There isn’t the time for the characters to develop, or for the story to play out. However, a Johnson/Ferdinando crime TV series? That would be something.
Hyena is on general release from Friday March 6th.