D (for Dennis) is a young 13 year old in Jamaica in 1973 when his older brother is shot and killed after trying to bring peace between two warring groups of gangsters. Afterwards, he is raised by one of the Dons at that meeting, and ten years later is sent to London where he almost starts another war by reneging on a cocaine deal and is living on the run when he finds out the man who killed his brother is in London too. Phew, now we can finally begin. The biggest problem with Yardie is in this first 30 act, where an hour of material is crammed into 20-30 minutes. You keep going through “and then….and then….and then…” before we finally settle into the film. It’s throwing dozens of characters at you but then not really giving you much to go on with them. Once it gets past the field of rakes it sets up for itself, Idris Elba’s directorial debut does get better.
Idris Elba is a massively talented actor, but bears the marks of struggle typical for a first-time filmmaker. He stacks the film with characters, introducing multiple ones each minute for the whole first and second act, it’s almost like the film can’t stop explaining itself. Elba’s direction is largely point-and-shoot and seemingly rushed, but he does have his moments. The film is filled with large dancehall scenes that are quite terrific. It’s in these concert scenes that Elba’s direction is at its best. His camera is free-flowing, letting you soak in the atmosphere. There’s great deep cuts in this film of reggae, dancehall, soul and even gospel. You almost wish that the film was about the music instead. His cast is largely able though as he rounds up the thickest Jamaican accents he can find, lead Aml Ameen has a winning charisma as D and Stephen Graham is always fun to watch sleaze it up.
There are many unique qualities about Yardie in regards to cinema, but they ultimately don’t elevate the film. We don’t get many films about Jamaicans made at even this level, and I can’t recall a film about the Jamaican immigrant experience in London during the 80s. Unfortunately these aspects are in service of a more basic film filled with tropes we’ve already seen plenty of times before. It’s like a lite version of City of God. As far as debuts go though, you can do a lot worse than solid, and I’m still game for anything Elba attaches his name to.