Rise of the Footsoldier: Origins (2021) review.

Rise of the Footsoldier (2007) is, to my judgement, one of the best of the numerous twentieth century British crime films. Not least, because it goes through a number of narrative shifts, starting as a biopic of former football hooligan Carlton Leach (played by the excellent Ricci Harnett), and ending up as a re-enactment of the infamous Rettendon Murders, where three drug dealers were found shot to death in a Land Rover in Essex in 1995. This incident, and the criminal activities of the murdered men, Pat Tate, Tony Tucker, and Craig Rolfe, have formed the basis for an astonishing number of low budget British gangster films. No fewer than eleven movies have been inspired by the murders and what led to them (outside of war, has there been a single historical incident that has spawned so many individual films?).  Furthermore, these eleven titles can be divided into three separate franchises; Rise of the Footsoldier and its four sequels; Bonded by Blood 1 (2010) and 2 (2017); and The Fall of the Essex Boys and its sequels, Essex Boys: Retribution (2013) and Law of Survival (2015). Alongside these is a standalone version of the events, Essex Boys from 2000. These films also feature cross pollination of cast and crew, with actors migrating between each series and playing alternate characters (most notably Billy Murray, Larry Lamb, Neil Maskell, Terry Stone, and Kierston Wareing).

Despite three of the main characters being dead by the end of the first film, the Rise of the Footsoldier series has managed to find creative ways to broaden out the story (into almost entirely fictional areas with scant links to actuality). The first sequel, Part II: Reign of the General (2015) continues Leach’s story after the death of his associates, is directed by Harnett himself and contains some genuine visual flair including an impressive Steadicam shot from the backstairs of a nightclub, into the dancefloor, and out to the front door in an uninterrupted take. Part three (2017), The Pat Tate story, is a prequel centring the character played by Craig Fairbrass, Marbella (2019) takes the cast to Spain for a heist story, and now Origins (2021) functions as the Tony Tucker story, and shows how the gang first became embroiled in running nightclub doors and dealing ecstasy.

Origins begins with a montage of newsreel from the Falklands War, and then segues into a short scene of a young Tucker returning from seeing active service in the conflict and smuggling home a pistol. The film fails to build upon this segment, but it works to establish Tucker as both troubled and sympathetic, and is quickly followed by a scene that shows him fully matured (played for the fifth time by Terry Stone, who also produces) and helping a man who has been assaulted outside a club. Since we know what the overall arc of the story will be, and that even if Origins will not show us his final demise we know it ultimately ends badly if we have seen the preceding movies, then this section positions it as a downfall story of a man who once had promise (a military career and an aversion to bullying) into a spiral of violence and addiction.

Indeed, it certainly helps if you have seen the films leading up to this, because the early scenes pass by in fragmentary fashion, and characters get established and dropped very quickly. For example, the audience is not told of the significance of the appearance of British boxer Nigel Benn, played here by his real-life son Conor, and it may seem needless if you are unaware that Tucker once ran the former world champion’s security (which was dealt with in Marbella, where Conor Benn also performs as his father).

This review isn’t going to be a full rundown of the plot and the making of the film, and instead I want to focus on two of its standout elements. Firstly, Origins has a far grimier aesthetic than previous entries in the series, particularly in comparison to its Spanish set predecessor, with much of it being dimly lit. The scenes of bustling Essex nightlife are kept brief and the action feels smaller scale (though there are a couple of explosions, plus a short Sierra versus Peugeot car chase). One feature of this lack of colour and scale is the predominance of close ups that make up the majority of shots. I cannot think of a British gangster movie of this type (low budget, post-2000) that features such a reliance on the close up, something that really stood out whilst watching on the cinema screen. I believe Origins was crowd funded, and so the close ups could be a symptom of a limited budget (pure speculation on my part), or possibly director Nick Nevern is a fan of Carl Theodore Dryer, or he just took advantage of the fact that his cast have an array of quite sensational faces.

The use of close ups has the effect of emphasising the performances of the actors over the spectacle of Southend club life or the violence. The cast, particularly the main trio of Stone, Fairbrass, and Roland Manookian as Rolfe, are now in early to late middle age, and while they are playing much younger men, age gives their faces a viscerally masculine look, with lots of lines, scars, and bags under eyes, all again emphasised by the director’s use of close ups. Vinnie Jones, who here plays the real-life former bouncer Bernard O’Mahoney, who knew the deceased and has written books on the murders, now has a face that looks like the side of a mountain and it is used to great effect. This gives him a genuine gravitas missing from some of his more recent roles.

The ‘look’ of these actors underlines the quality of their performances. The cast, even down to the minor roles, are uniformly excellent, but it is the performances of the central characters that really impress. Jones is very subtle as a character that maintains a wisdom and life experience that contrasts with the wildness of the series regulars. Manookian seems to specialise in playing the incredibly snide and unlikeable, and does so very well again here. Because of the nature of the downfall narrative, Stone has to put in a slightly goofier than normal performance, and has to evoke some initial sense of innocence, not easy when playing someone as fundamentally unsympathetic as Tucker, but which he manages to do effectively. The standout performance however, is Fairbrass as Pat Tate. His is the most unredeemable of the three, and Fairbrass somehow manages to imbue a little bit of helplessness in what is an exceedingly violent role (anyone who remembers him as Dan Sullivan in EastEnders will know of Fairbrass’ capacity for both menace and vulnerability, as well as his considerable screen presence). I have absolutely no anxiety whatsoever about declaring him to be brilliant here. The moment where he first encounters Vinnie Jones and they indulge in a brief scrap (again shot in close up), is a terrific piece of intelligent and restrained acting – mumbled dialogue from both actors followed by a sly and unexpected headbutt – that feels as dangerous and ‘live’ as anything in a Shane Meadows film, or even in any of Joe Pesci’s explosive moments from his work with Scorsese. It is a very minor and short scene in the film, but the most striking moment for me.

One feature of all of the Footsoldier films that I especially like is that the cast, despite delivering an enormous amount of onscreen violence and verbal abuse, are never afraid to include moments where they are humbled or made to look silly or ridiculous. This might come in moments where they are put down or insulted by women, or where they are shown to be terrified, or even beg for their lives. If there is one moral at the heart of the Rise of the Footsoldier series, it is that there is always a bigger fish. In Origins, there are moments where Stone, Manookian, Jones, and Fairbrass are all put in their place at one time or another, which provides us with an important counterpoint to the brutality they dish out, as well as to deflect any suggestion that they are glamorising the men’s crimes.

Indeed, the ultimate end point to all of these films is three dead men in a Land Rover, and Origins (as does its predecessors) continually reminds us of the portentous conclusion awaiting its main characters, and that no matter what we see them doing on screen, they are ultimately not going to get away with it.

It is rare for British films to generate as many sequels, and the fact Footsoldier has done so is highly encouraging for the state of low-budget genre/exploitation cinema in this country. While it is difficult to see how this particular story can be mined any further, I certainly hope that if there is not another sequel that the cast and crew can reunite and find some way to continue to demonstrate their talents.

Newton Talks #19 The Asylum in Cinema, with Dr Jennifer Wallis

In this episode, historian of medicine and psychiatry Dr Jennifer Wallis joins me to discuss the relationship between the Victorian asylum and cinema, particularly the representation of the asylum in the horror film. We discuss 70s Amicus productions, Session 9 (2001), the reality of asylum life, and how cinema was used as entertainment in the West Riding Asylum in the 1920s. Jennifer is author of Investigating the Body in the Victorian Asylum Doctors, Patients, and Practices (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017) and has also contributed chapters on film to the Headpress publications Are you in the House Alone? (ed. Amanda Reyes), and Offbeat (ed. Julian Upton).
Listen here https://audioboom.com/posts/7892825-newton-talks-19-the-asylum-in-cinema-with-dr-jennifer-wallis

Newton Talks #18 No Budget Filmmaking in the Midlands, with director Tom Lee Rutter.

In this latest episode of Newton Talks I talk to Tom Lee Rutter, director of Day of the Stranger, the folk horror Bella in the Wych Elm, and the forthcoming ‘almanac’ The Pocket Film of Superstitions. We discuss no budget and guerrilla filmmaking, what it’s like to make films in the Midlands and the Black Country, and Tom’s own approach to making creative horror features.

You can listen here; https://audioboom.com/posts/7883583-newton-talks-18-no-budget-filmmaking-in-the-midlands-with-director-tom-lee-rutter

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Newton Talks #14 Britain and The Video Rental Boom, with Dr Johnny Walker

In this episode of my podcast, Dr Johnny Walker joins me to talk about the book he is writing about the video rental boom of the 1970s and 1980s in Britain. We talk about how home video impacted the film industry in terms of new market opportunities, influencing future filmmakers, and also its effect on Britain’s working class and South Asian communities. 

Listen here: https://audioboom.com/posts/7717523-newton-talks-14-britain-and-the-video-rental-boom-with-dr-johnny-walker

Newton Talks Cult Film Microcast #5 Deadbeat at Dawn

In this microcast I talk about Jim Van Bebber’s no budget, underground street gang action movie, Deadbeat at Dawn (1988).

You can listen here: https://audioboom.com/posts/7615579-newton-talks-cult-film-microcast-5-deadbeat-at-dawn

Newton Talks #12: The American TV movie with Amanda Reyes

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In this podcast, television historian Amanda Reyes joins me to talk about the American TV movie of the 1960s up until the 1990s. We discuss its relationship to cinematic genres, and in particular how they often mimicked the subjects of exploitation films, resulting in TV movie versions of rape-revenge, horror, women in prison, among others. Like much of exploitation cinema their narratives also frequently dealt with topical subjects, and they were made on often meagre shooting schedules and with low budgets.

Amanda’s book on the subject, Are You in the House Alone, is published by Headpress, and her Made for TV Mayhem podcast is available here: https://tvmayhempodcast.wordpress.com

Listen to our chat here

 

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Ruminations on ‘anarchist’ and ‘political’ cinema.

In 1962 Alan Lovell wrote that the ‘anarchist cinema’ was ‘immediately relevant to our world of power states, mass murder, torture, protests and revolts’, an observation that is as true today as it was then.

The difficulty comes in defining this ‘anarchist cinema’. This is a problem that people like Lovell, and most notably Richard Porton, and a small handful of others, have attempted to resolve. My own study into the subject resulted in me writing the imaginatively titled The Anarchist Cinema (Intellect, 2019). In this book, I argue that cinema is an inherently capitalist artform, and so finding unambiguously ‘anarchist’ films made within the institution of commercial cinema was, if not impossible, bound up with contradictions around need to generate profit, as well as a film’s conflicting and varying ‘message’. Interpretation of any film differs according to the point of view of the person watching, the time it was made, the ideological stance of the filmmaker, or any other factor that could affect how we understand a film. Therefore, hardly any film can categorically be said to be this ‘ism, or that ‘ism. It is most often just a matter of how any individual decides to interpret what they see in any given moment. (There are exceptions of course. Not many would content that The Eternal Jew, for example, is anything other than virulently anti-Semitic. That was the point of it, after all.)

In The Anarchist Cinema, I argue that while commercial cinema contains these paradoxes, those interested in anarchism could still engage with mainstream films by looking at moments within them, rather than as a whole, and noticing moments that exemplify anarchist theory, or even by enjoying inspiring depictions of on screen ‘anarchy’. Ultimately, any anarchist notion of cinema would take into consideration the distinction between film as individual object, and the institution of cinema as a broader cultural enterprise that combines capital, industry, artistry, and a multitude of different fan responses. I argue that something can become part of an ‘anarchist cinema’ if it is used to help conceive of or conceptualise anarchism. This might be a commercial film that contains anarchist imagery, art films that propagate an anarchist message (even if for only part of its running time), and individual moments that can be co-opted for an anarchist cause. Any of these can even include material that is contrary to anarchist theory, but which can be used in support of a particular point or argument.

Jean Luc Godard once said that making political films was not the issue. What was the issue was to make films politically, meaning that the process of production and the experience of viewing has to deconstruct and create possibilities beyond depicting political events or making an argument in narrative form. With this difference in mind, one wonders what counts as ‘political’ film today. How will cinema respond to the sort of political upheaval witnessed over the past week in the USA, where citizens have protested, demonstrated, and rioted against continuing police brutality and the murder of George Floyd by uniformed police – captured, as is increasing the case, on camera by onlookers? Mainstream films inspired by this awful crime and its aftermath will undoubtedly contain positive messages. These imaginary future movies may even stir up anger and be used to dictate future social policy (though this would be unusual). But I make the claim that if films based around these events and those like it are to have genuine political relevance, they cannot just attempt to replicate what has happened so as to affect an emotional response in the viewer. Nor can they do so by merely recreating the methods by which these events have been conveyed to the world, namely by mimicking the thousands of hours of mobile phone footage capturing what is happening first hand.

For cinema to have political relevance it should not only subsume the aesthetic influence of the vibrant and terrifying footage shot by nearby citizens and which we are consuming on social media, but find some way to successfully incorporate the actual footage as well. It should also find some way to credit those who have produced the images. Because it is no longer medium specific, film cannot just rely on replicating the world using its traditional methods, used to direct emotions and reveal information in ways that create a ‘satisfying’ viewing experience. No dramatisation can do justice to that which has happened to George Floyd or the ever increasing numbers of people like him. Nor can a film do justice to the understandably angry response of citizens that followed, if it relies on singling out (possibly fictionalised) individuals and weaving tragic or inspiring stories designed to create our empathy with the protagonists on screen. Our knowledge and understanding of this method of narrativising softens any real world relevancy of the message, because we understand it as a ‘Hollywood’ technique. Films that do this are part of the history of cinema, not part of the fabric of political and social developments, and so we contextualise them differently when watching.

This does not mean that only documentaries can respond to the sort of happenings and uprisings we are seeing. Fictional and dramatised versions can find ways to utilise the actual footage shot by protestors and bystanders as part of their narrative, but should do so by accepting that the citizens who shot the footage are also actual creative filmmakers, and not just as collectors of raw material for ‘proper’ or ordained filmmakers to do what they want with. These citizens using their cameras have, after all, contributed to our collective memory and understanding of events not only by being in the right (or wrong) place at the right time, but also by selecting what to shoot and when, and by shifting angles and altering framing by which to create the maximum impact for viewers. They also sometimes provide commentary on what is happening, with full awareness of the possibilities for interpretation and misinterpretation. The importance of citizen shot footage to journalism is now fully accepted. Is there potential for a similar acceptance within cinema?

There are, of course, forerunners in these developments. Spike Lee, for example, demonstrates the importance of real world imagery within fictional narratives or dramatisations of historical events in films like Do the Right Thing, Summer of Sam, and BlacKkKlansman. There are almost certainly other directors I am unaware of who do similar or even go further than Lee. The question moving forward is how will citizen filmmakers be credited, financial or otherwise, for their contributions. Also, how will the rights of those captured in the footage be protected in terms of their privacy and personal safety.  I do not yet know the answer to this, beyond directly compensating the creator of every clip utilised or somehow getting every face seen in the clip to sign a release form. But if commercial cinemas (including not just the often unfairly maligned ‘Hollywood’, but the often just as derivative commercial cinemas of many other nations) cannot find ways to compensate and collaborate with the very people who are creating how we view the world – those who are documenting these events often under extreme stress, and while sometimes putting themselves in danger for a greater cause – then perhaps cinema should stay away from attempting to profit off the back of them.

Newton Talks Cult Film Microcast #3 The Harder They Come

The Harder They Come (1972) - IMDb

 

In this episode of my Cult Film Microcast series, I look at Perry Henzell’s 1972 Jamaican film, The Harder They Come. The poster above is from the American New World Pictures release, and makes a clear attempt to market the film as a blaxploitation crime picture. Like many films of the blaxploitation cycle, it has an anti-authoritarian ethos, and the music and soundtrack is a vital component in generating its mood.

In this recording, I focus on the stylistic techniques, the performance by reggae star Jimmy Cliff as Ivanoe Martin, and the famous scene set in the Rialto cinema in Kingston, where Martin goes to watch a performance of the spaghetti western Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966).

Listen below:

Newton Talks Cult Film Microcast #2 The Exterminator

The Exterminator (1980) - IMDb

In this series of micro-podcasts I look at individual cult films. In this episode I focus on James Glickenhaus’ often maligned The Exterminator (1980). A sleazy and very violent exploitation movie set in New York, The Exterminator features a traumatised Vietnam veteran avenging an attack on his friend, as well as the mobsters extorting local businesses. While nowhere near as respected as superficially similar New York vigilante movies like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) or Winner’s Death Wish (1974), it has enough moments of significance that make it worthy of attention in its own right. Note, for example, how it juxtaposes the hellish jungles of Vietnam with a City in economic and moral decline, and how its lead character identifies with both victims and victimisers. Listen to more of my thoughts on the movie here;

Cult Film Microcast #1 The Warriors

As part of my Newton Talks podcast I have started a spin-off series of short ‘microcasts’ on cult cinema, much shorter than my regular episodes. Each episode will see me introducing a different cult film. The first of these is all about Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979). I hope you enjoy it. Have a listen here;