Essex Boys - Sight and Sound Review

Last Update: 23 July 2000

August 2000

Source: Sight and Sound


Keith Perry

Essex, the present. Young taxi driver Billy is hired to chauffeur gangster Jason Locke, newly released from prison. Billy falls in with Jason's gang who deal drugs imported by John Dyke and his partner Perry Elley. Jason is urged by his wife Lisa to usurp Dyke, but soon she leaves him because of his adultery. One of Jason's drug batches, supplied by Dyke and Elley, is defective. Jason strangles a girl while she is intoxicated. Billy and Dyke dispose of the corpse. Jason, his reputation destroyed, pressurises Dyke to return the money paid for the defective drugs.

Assisted by Billy, Dyke murders Jason and his gang. Billy is hired by Dyke to look after Lisa, although he is unaware that she turned up at the site of the massacre moments after it took place and is now sleeping with Dyke. Lisa takes over Jason's position, then seduces Billy. When the jealous Dyke learns of this, he attempts to kill Billy who escapes and hides out with a stash of drugs. Lisa anonymously informs the police of Billy's whereabouts. He is arrested; his only chance for clemency is to name Dyke as Jason's murderer. Lisa goes into partnership with Elley.

In 1995, three criminals were found shot dead in a Range Rover in a quiet Essex lane. This true-life massacre inspired the violent set piece of writers Jeff Pope and Terry Winsor's otherwise fictional Essex Boys, the latest addition to the current cycle of British gangster films. As novice Billy hovers greedily outside Jason's macho world of racketeering, director Winsor (Party, Party) seems to be composing a portrait of a gangster 'manque' (a figure Eric Zonca explored with subtlety in the Le Petit Voleur). Very soon, however, the film steers into familiar gangster rise-and-fall territory with Billy as the witness to Jason's brutish activities.

As Jason, Sean Bean combines ruthless violence with a preening narcissistic streak, at one point throwing acid in a victim's face, then tutting at the splashes on his shirt. The delight Bean takes in firearms echoes the loving attitude Paul Muni demonstrates towards his machine gun in Howard Hawks' classic gangster film 'Scarface' (1932). Any attempt to deglamorise gangsters in cinema is, of course, enormously difficult, given film-makers' ambivalent, often admiring, attitude to the disruptive allure of organised crime. But in Essex Boys Jason is as close to unsympathetic as a screen gangster can get. In this regard, the script's notable lack of humour helps enormously. What made the gangsters of the 30s so beguiling was their snappy dialogue and firecracker wit; here, nothing quotable comes from the mouth of Jason or any of his cohorts. Providing a hoodlum bereft of internal subtleties (there's not even the usual hint of repressed homosexuality) may be out of fashion in the wake of television's 'The Sopranos'. But Winsor's refusal to invest his characters with any degree of psychological complexity ironically secures his film a distinct place in the roll call of British gangster movies.

Essex Boys' other strength is its determinedly local flavour; its feet are planted firmly in British mud. The Essex locations - its sand flats and marshlands - are as well chosen as the grotty northern locales of 'Get Carter' (1971). Even Jason's scheming wife Lisa (the equine Alex Kingston) is as much Essex girl as femme fatale.

But ultimately Essex Boys is depressingly similar to the two film versions of 70s television police series 'The Sweeney'. There, the transfer from small to big screen was less an opportunity to subvert the myths of the career criminal than an excuse to spice up their seedier elements. This led to harsher language and more nudity and bloodshed - all in the name of realism. Winsor directs Essex Boys with raucous power, but his failure to say anything illuminating about his screen gangsters makes the film seem grubby; its potential missed; its morals dubious; its pleasures guilty.

Visit the Sight and Sound website

Return to Essex Boys Press Archive

Return to The Compleat Sean Bean