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.