Dir. Dexter Fletcher, UK, 2011, 98 mins.
Reviewed by Robert Barry
The familiar figure of the old lag turned to the good is here given new life by the unfamiliar twist of substituting the gnawing resentment of two rather bad boys for the love of a good woman as the agent of redemptive transformation.
When Charlie Creed-Miles’s eponymous hero returns home from prison after an eight year stint, he finds his two sons abandoned by their mother and fending somewhat haphazardly for themselves. While his uneasy return to civilian life initially places Bill in an awkward reversal, finding himself a child in comparison to his own son’s enforced maturity, soon a whole whirlwind of trouble is brewing between the errant boys and the ghosts of Bill’s nefarious past. Wild Bill ultimately proves to be a coming of age film for father and sons alike.
This directorial debut from former Games Master presenter Dexter Fletcher sees him calling in a whole gaggle of old mates for the ride. So engaging cameos are found for former co-stars Jason Flemyng (Lock Stock), Olivia Williams (Below) and Andy Serkis (Topsy Turvy). Meanwhile, Creed-Miles himself, having finally completed his career trajectory from The Bill to top billing, proves himself more than capable of carrying a movie with a performance that manages to ring true, while adding a sensitive, hang-dog note to the usual “tough guy without much going on upstairs” role.
But for all Fletcher’s experience in front of the camera (he starred in Bugsy Malone at the age of 11 and hasn’t stopped since), he clearly has a lot to learn behind it. Here the onscreen geezer we’ve come to expect form him seems to bleed into authorial choices – too many shots ‘look cool’ and seem to serve little other purpose than to strive, somewhat lumpenly, for this same elusive coolness. It’s like there’s a bag of camera tricks that he’s noted down in a little pocket book over the years, keeping them in reserve, only along the way he’s forgotten the context and sense of purpose that made those very ‘tricks’ work so effectively in the first place. So for all its emotional baggage, Wild Bill cannot help but come across as somewhat shallow in its visual style.
There is however another story hanging over the relatively straightforward one concerning Bill and his sons and his struggle to ‘go straight’ in a ‘tough world’ and that concerns the very world which these characters inhabit. Shot entirely on location around Stratford, East London, the skyline of Wild Bill is dominated by the macabre skeleton of the Olympic park, rising as if from the grave, amidst the tower blocks and council estates the film’s characters inhabit. The film thus takes a snapshot of the half-built stadium in all its neo-gothic glory.
The spectre of the Olympics hangs over the film like a shroud – for Bill’s son Dean (played by Son of Rambow‘s Will Poulter) it is a day job, in that he finds himself part of the hordes of casualised, semi-skilled workforce brought onsite to “grab yourself a shovel and build us a velodrome,” as his boss insists. At the same time, for the gangsters and drug dealers that occupyStratford’s criminal demi-monde, the Olympics is an opportunity – “boom times for everyone” they intone with sinister intent.
The film then successfully captures a piece of history. And for all the clumsiness of its emotional handling and the nigglingly irritating “look-at-me-ness” of its visual quirks, it nonetheless at least seems to understand what is at stake, politically and sociologically, in the historical moment it glimpses, even if only in sidelong corner of the eye.