Crime dramas this good don't come around very often -- or at least, they didn't until William Monahan got in the game. Having penned the script for 2006's The Departed, Monahan has followed up his success on that movie with London Boulevard, a gritty, noir-style British gangster film, which also marks his impossibly momentous directorial debut. Well, almost impossibly: The first-time director lives up to all the expectations and more of being an Oscar winner. His debut film is gripping and incisive, pointedly drawing bleak and sometimes hilarious comparisons between Hollywood and the criminal underworld -- two notoriously merciless enclaves.
The story opens on Mitchel (Colin Farrell), a highly accomplished and thoroughly respected gangster who just finished a stint in prison. Finally free to strut purposefully down public sidewalks in dashing, narrow-cut suits and perfectly worn-in leather jackets, Mitchel is contemplating going straight. Luckily for him, a legit job matching his exact skill set falls into his lap: acting as the personal bodyguard for a skittish, reclusive movie star named Charlotte (Keira Knightley), whose London mansion is constantly stalked by ruthless paparazzi. But of course, Mitchell finds that it's not so easy to leave the criminal life behind. After pulling a few favors for his idiot shyster of an old buddy Billy (a greasy Ben Chaplin), he catches the attention of an imposing local mob boss named Gant (Ray Winstone), who starts courting/threatening Mitchel to work for him based on Mitchel's fear-inducing reputation and general aptitude for badassery. Simultaneously, the spark between Mitchel and Charlotte grows increasingly undeniable, and what with her being a darling of the media, he literally and figuratively begins to see her everywhere.
London Boulevard may be one of the first truly extraordinary, totally inspired gangster movies to be officially classified as post-Scorsese. Plenty of mediocre up-and-coming directors have taken pages out of the Scorsese playbook, with middling or hackneyed results. But London Boulevard is so gripping and so expertly crafted, it earns every quick cut, every musical selection by the Yardbirds, every brutal, ass-kicking revenge montage. Additionally, the English bent of the film adds yet another dimension to what's already a fascinating, multilayered affair -- and not just because it's novel to hear the way British guys ironically call each other "sweetheart." The London underworld seems to play its own supporting role, giving this dark story a fascinating and peculiar backdrop. But don't go in expecting some outrageous Snatch-style crime comedy; London Boulevard's grim side is unrelenting. Which isn't to say that the movie isn't often funny; its humor is spot-on, especially in scenes with Jordan (David Thewlis), Charlotte's gay, middle-aged caretaker, who alternately sashays and unloads semiautomatic weapons. It's just that as exceedingly compelling as every moment in the movie is, it's also deeply tragic. And that's as it should be, placing London Boulevard squarely in the elite upper echelon of crime cinema.