The Intent is a gangster film which flashes its modernity while at the same time being very much old school, if not totally familiar. That it can breathe moments of life into what is a very hoary trope says a lot; that it cannot totally escape those tropes is probably to be expected.
Hoodz, Gunz, D Angel, and Mitch are a gang in waiting, eventually named TIC for Thieves In The Community. Hoodz is the man with the ambition, and wants to move beyond selling drugs and petty thuggery. Mitch is the one who wants no trouble, wants no one hurt. Gunz is the one who as a kid was fascinated by them, and D, well, D smokes a lotta weed. When their first armed heist goes wrong, and the woman shopkeeper is killed, Mitch suffers a crisis of conscience, while the other three go onto to bigger better and bloodier things.
So far, so familiar. It's at times a very flashy thing, but its most powerful scene may be early on, when Hoodz and Gunz relieve two young dealers of their new watches and chains. It has a real sense of menace, of a law of the jungle mentality that makes the streets seems truly dangerous, and it contrasts with the strongly suburban setting in both south London and in Birmingham. The flash comes mostly in the robbery scenes, the gang's masks and the fast moving motorcyles, the relentlessly upbeat progression upwards in the foodchain. Femi Oyeniran both co-directed and co-wrote the movie, and plays Mitch, and one gets the sense the action scenes may show an influence of the other co-director, Kalvadour Peterson.
It also works because the leads are good. Hoodz (played by Scorcher) and Guns (by Dylan Duffus) look like they've stepped out of The Wire (I kept seeing Wood Harris and Clark Johnson in their roles in an American remake). Oyeniran's role is smaller, in fact he simply disappears for the long central section of the movie, but it's harder to be Mitch (who tellingly has no gangland nickname, and you can guess what Mitch rhymes with) and he does well with it. In fact, most of the gangster roles are well played, Ashley Chin and Fekky are both good, perhaps because they are more fun and easier to play.
There's far more awkwardness in much of the supporting cast, especially those playing the police, who look strangely unbelievable...Sarah Akokia has a hard time seeming to be as tough as she's supposed to be. At one point I started wondering if this was intentional—a representation of what the police are really like, not that tough, not that strong, much younger than we think. I thought the same thing after the first shooting, which is not very convincing at all, badly staged and woodenly acted. But of course this is what real gunplay is like, the sounds and the drama are things added in. I would have thought this an excellent point to make, except the rest of the shootings in the film are more up to what we expect in gangster movies, and most of the scenes not set in nightclubs or shootouts have an almost Coronation Street flatness to the way they're shot.
At heart, it's a story of loyalty and intent; there's an undercover cop in the gang, who's in danger of falling in ove with the gangsta ife; Mitch has his second thoughts and quits; and there's a constant carping about family loyalties even as family members betray each other, which contrasts to the kind of family relations Hoodz has with his own mother and sister. His mother is disgusted with him, and won't take his money; his sister is more ambivalent, and her friend Naeema is very much taken with him. Even though Naeema is the daughter of the woman shopkeeper killed in their first robbery, and even though she doesn't know Hoodz was involved, she knows the life. Her father has said he is taking the family back to Pakistan, but next thing you know she's in the club in a dress revealing enough for a Trump wife, assimilation winning out in the end. Jade Asha seems far more comfortable in this part of the role, just as the guys playing the hoodlums seem far more comfortable than most of the cast. And she, like them, is much better than any of the people involved in those gangster-chiq Tarantino lite pix that plagued Britain a decade ago (Gangster No 1 or Love Honour and Obey anyone? If you doubt it, see my essay 'What Makes the British Hardman Hard?' to which you can link here).
The Intent's final problem is one that goes back to the very first gangster movies. Like Little Caesar or Scarface, the gangsters become the romantic heroes, and their lifestyles become aspirational. Who remembers nowadays that Scarface was actually titled Scarface: Shame Of A Nation? Yes in the end crime did not pay, sometimes awkward codas had to be added on to make that point more clearly, but there was little doubt as to which characters were having the better time. It is Naeema's dilemma in a nutshell, and really it is why so many of the supporting cast, particularly Akokhia as Police Sergeant Smith, act like they'd rather been playing on the other side.
It's a story that keeps moving, and it has enough ambiguity to keep your attention. And it ends as it began, in flashback, which is truly touching and a little surprising, especially if you understand police carry rules. Impressive, derivative, inventive, and most of all promising.
directed by Femi Oyeniran, Kalvadour Peterson
written by Oyeniran and Nicky Slimting Walker
on release from today, 29 July
This review will also appear at Crime Time (www.crimetime.co.uk)