D: Steven M. Smith / 91m
Cast: Chris Bell, Ross Boatman, Jesse Birdsall, Megan Lockhurst, Mark Sears, Abbie Steele, James Hodcroft, Jake Francis, Darren James King, Owen Clark, Dean Martin, Mark Arden, Carlton Leach
For anyone who doesn’t live in the county of Essex in the United Kingdom, the Rettendon murders, committed on 6 December 1995, probably won’t mean a thing. Three drug dealers – Tony Tucker, Patrick Tate and Craig Rolfe – were shot dead, executed, while they sat in a Range Rover down a small farm track. The subsequent police investigation yielded no suspects or evidence that could have led to a prosecution. It was only after the investigation was abandoned that further police enquiries led to the arrest of two men, Jack Whomes and Michael Steele, and they were eventually convicted of the murders. There is some doubt about their guilt due to the reliability of some of the evidence, but their sentence still stands.
In 1990, Essex Boys was released. It starred Sean Bean, Tom Wilkinson, and Charlie Creed-Miles, and was a fictionalised account of the murders and the events that led up to them. It’s not a great movie, but it gets most of the relevant facts right, and Bean is on splendid form as a psycho gangster. Then in 2007, Rise of the Footsoldier arrived, a violent, unimaginative movie that focused on ex-gangland enforcer Carlton Leach’s rise within the ranks of the criminal underworld, before it shoehorned in the murders at the end. (A sequel, Rise of the Footsoldier: Part 2 (2015), followed Leach in the wake of the murders.) Further movies have appeared since then, all attempting to gain some semblance of relevance by referencing the Rettendon murders, and using them as a means of exploring Essex’s criminal infrastructure – and each having the same effect: they’re all terrible.
And so, after Bonded by Blood (2010), The Fall of the Essex Boys (2013), Essex Boys: Retribution (2013), and a spurious documentary, Essex Boys: The Truth (2015), we have Essex Boys: Law of Survival, a sorry excuse for a movie that manages to reach a new low in British feature production. It’s an appalling movie that has only one positive aspect to it (more of which later), and which continually amazes in the way it maintains its completely shoddy visual style and amateurish presentation. Beginning with a voice over by Carlton Leach about the Rettendon murders, and the nature of crime (as he sees it), it sets the tone for the rest of the movie by making Leach sound as if he reads out loud to himself but doesn’t realise that full stops mean you can pause or take a breath.
Leach then disappears from the movie until he pops back up at the end with more words of wisdom. At this point we’re introduced to two rival gangs who want to beat the crap out of each other on an industrial estate, but won’t actually throw any punches until a handful of riot police get in between them. A very poorly choreographed fight sequence leads to another very poorly choreographed fight sequence – this time in a pub – and the death of one of the gang members. Two years pass. The police inspector who investigated the death, Franks (Boatman), is now a bit of a bigwig in criminal circles, and feared by pretty much everyone (even his boss won’t sanction him, despite knowing what he’s getting up to). One person who doesn’t really care is Danny (Bell). He’s making an effort to stay straight, and is helped in this by his girlfriend, Amy (Steele). But when the two of them witness Franks killing one of his “crew”, Amy is killed, and Danny is shot and left for dead.
Danny remains comatose for some time – the movie never really confirms just how long – but when he finally wakes up he has one thing on his mind: revenge on Franks for killing Amy. He seeks out an untraceable gun from a paranoid American called Gerrard (Clark), and begins targetting Franks’s men, and then Franks’s wife Judy (Lockhurst). Up until now the movie has been dreadful to watch, but it’s at this point that any semblance of credibility is thrown out of the window with the revelation that Judy is actually a Mountie – yes, a Canadian Mountie! – and has been sent undercover to become Franks’s wife and find out who the Canadian drug dealer is that’s supplying Franks with the product he’s distributing. It all leads to a showdown where Danny gets the chance to avenge Amy, and Judy gets her man (Arden). And then poor old Carlton comes back…
Watching Essex Boys: Law of Survival, the word that keeps springing to mind is: inept. The script by Christopher Jolley is replete with repetition, contains dialogue that’s never been spoken by anyone in real life, has no sense of the time period it’s trying to establish, and when it has Lockhurst admit that Judy has sex with Franks “but doesn’t enjoy it”, stomps on any hope that the viewer might have had that Jolley, director Smith, and the producers – who include the ever-dependably awful Paul Tanter and Simon Phillips (see Shame the Devil and He Who Dares) – had any intentions of making an even partially good movie. It’s not even clear that they care at all if the movie is bad or not. If they did, then they couldn’t possibly have thought that Judy’s admission, or any of the various scenes that give a bad name to screenwriting and directing, was anywhere near good enough to be included in the final cut.
The acting is atrocious, with the exception of Steele as Amy, the one bright spot in the whole movie. It’s her first feature role, and hopefully not her last, as she brings an innate sweetness to the role that thankfully offsets the harsher qualities of every other character. But she’s alone in being able to recite the dialogue convincingly, or as if English wasn’t most of the cast’s first language, and the emotional range on display ranges from teeth-clenchingly angry to teeth-clenchingly upset – and back again. Bell is particularly bad, displaying his anger at his girlfriend’s death and his own shooting by wandering around various back streets looking like he’s trying to solve a difficult maths problem in his head, instead of being on a vengeful killing spree.
The photography is alarming as well, with scenes inexpertly framed and blocked out, and odd camera angles used in almost every other shot, an effect that leaves the viewer wondering if Steadicam operator Matt Mitchell and the team of seven camera operators were all suffering from advanced Parkinsons during the shoot, or they were just putting the camera wherever they felt like it and hoping for the best. The editing is dreadful as a result; with so much ill-designed and shot footage to work with, editors Smith and Gareth Fient give up the ghost and play Connect Every Other Shot, a decision that makes continuity laughable – Danny appears in a scene with Gerrard where he has a cut lip and a head wound, and this is before we see the scene where he receives the selfsame injuries.
There are many other examples of how bad the movie is, but one that stands out is the movie’s final scene, a recreation of the Rettendon murders that wants to be an unexpected twist intended to have audiences gasping in shock and surprise, but which actually serves to show how ill-considered this whole venture has been all along. Let’s hope that with this awful farrago, we won’t have to endure yet another movie about the Rettendon murders, but if we do then we should also hope that it won’t be made on a micro-budget, feature a cast who can’t act (even veterans Boatman and Birdsall lack conviction), contain sound effects that don’t match the gunfire at any time, and have a script that has all the cohesion of a puff of smoke.
Rating: 1/10 – dire, just absolutely dire, and another nail in the coffin of low budget British crime dramas; Essex Boys: Law of Survival should be avoided at all costs, and even if you think the Rettendon murders are really fascinating, this is not the place to indulge that fascination, not when you could be doing something more useful, like knitting your own yoghurt, or counting the number of actual pixels in the movie Pixels (2015).