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D: Mark O’Connor / 92m

Cast: John Connors, Fionn Walton, Kierston Wareing, Jimmy Smallhorne, Paul Alwright, Ryan Lincoln, Fionna Hewitt-Tramley, Toni O’Rourke

Having grown up together in the small town of Darndale, four friends, now in their early twenties, find themselves at a crossroads. Jay (Connors), Dano (Walton), Glenner (Alwright), and Cobbie (Lincoln), are either unemployed or working for cash (or both) in order to get by. Dano wants them to knock off the local crime boss, Derra (Smallhorne), believing it would be “easy”. Jay and the others think it’s a bad idea. But when Jay is forced to rob an off licence to pay off his mother’s debt to Derra, it’s not long before the quartet are selling drugs on Derra’s patch, and doing so with relative impunity. To complicate matters, Jay’s girlfriend Sarah (O’Rourke) is pregnant, but he’s also having an affair with Derra’s wife, Kim (Wareing). Soon enough, Jay and his friends’ successful “business” venture attracts Derra’s attention, and he makes Jay an offer that Jay flatly refuses. What follows is a series of events that become more and more violent, and which threaten the lives of Jay, his mother (Hewitt-Tramley), his friends, and Sarah – events that will change their lives, and Derra’s, completely…

A rough-edged drama that often betrays its low budget roots, Cardboard Gangsters is still a robust Irish movie that is far more ambitious than you might expect. It’s a familiar milieu that we’re exposed to, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the script by director O’Connor and star Connors, provides enough familiarity for audiences to assess the movie’s narrative dynamic at a glance, while also adding several unexpected emotional layers for good measure. There are the usual themes of loyalty and brotherhood, as well as trust and betrayal, but shot through with a knowing vitality that invests even the most dramatically prosaic of scenes with a pace and an energy that elevates the material immensely. The various inter-relationships are handled well, and O’Connor displays a knack for stripping back the characterisations to a bare minimum while allowing the performances to grow from them. Even a character such as Dano, a mile a minute loudmouth with big ideas but little courage to back them up, is allowed to grow and develop as the movie progresses, and Walton seizes the opportunity to make him as memorable as possible. Again, the movie may appear predictable and rote at times, but the approach offsets this entirely.

Where the movie does excel is in its depiction of Jay and his violent nature, something he’s aware of but not always able to control. He’s a naturally cautious young man (he’s twenty-four but according to Kim he looks thirty), but his more aggressive, don’t care temperament puts him in many more dangerous situations than he needs to be in. His affair with Kim is a case in point; knowing she’s married to Derra doesn’t faze him in the least, even though he’s aware it’s unlikely to go well for him if Derra finds out. Connors portrays Jay with a quiet, deep-rooted sense of concentration, as if he’s constantly working out all the angles – only to ignore all the best ones for the bad. He’s a thinker who’s in thrall to his emotions, and Connors is very good indeed as the up and coming gang boss whose personal issues threaten the lives of everyone around him. Set against a small town backdrop of social listlessness, O’Connor imbues the movie with a modicum of hope for the four friends but is wise enough to know that youthful ambition isn’t always enough to guarantee success. And though the outcome is necessarily bleak, the demands of the narrative mean there’s no other option, either for O’Connor, or Jay.

Rating: 7/10 – better than average, and scoring points for the deftness of its characterisations, Cardboard Gangsters tells an overly familiar tale with verve and no small semblance of rugged style; some may find the Irish accents impenetrable at times, but the gist of the story (and individual scenes) shines through, making this easier to follow than expected, and shot through with moments of quiet power.