Hard-edged British gangster films have been around at least since the original 1947 Brighton Rock (with the very young Richard Attenborough as a particularly loathsome hoodlum, if you can believe it) through Mona Lisa and The Long Good Friday in the 1980s to the more recent work of Guy Ritchie (Snatch, RocknRolla) and Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake). Hyena — the second feature from writer/director Gerard Johnson — is firmly in that tradition. In fact it goes beyond hard-edged; it’s downright nasty.
We first meet Michael Logan (Peter Ferdinando, pictured above) as he gathers together his crude, loutish buddies. They dress up as police and barrel into a club, beating the living daylights out of everyone in sight. The purpose of this mayhem is not clear, suggesting that it’s merely a release for a bunch of high-spirited guys.
These thugs are so flagrantly brutal that one wishes the cops would appear. It’s not until another ten minutes have passed that we find out they have appeared: Logan and his buddies aren’t just dressed as cops . . . they are cops. Their behavior sets a pretty high scumbag bar for the nominal crooks to clear.
But they do, as we find out soon enough. There wouldn’t be that much moral distance between the two groups, if only the Kabashi brothers — immigrant Albanians who traffic in drugs and women — didn’t literally tear apart the people they murder. We get glimpses of their work, and — take my word for it — it’s icky.
All of this is apparently taking place in West London, more specifically Notting Hill, which — even before Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts showed up — had a posh reputation. If it’s a nice part of town, you’d never know it from Hyena. The neighborhood seems overrun with competing gangster factions from various immigrant groups.
Almost as viciously competitive are the cops: Logan and his pals may be among the most corrupt on the force, but it’s not for the want of contenders. No one can trust anyone, and most are after a share of the vice payoff money.
Logan discovers that both cultures have targeted him. David Knight (Stephen Graham), his former partner on the force, almost went to prison after Logan ratted him out for statutory rape. Knight is now back . . . and in charge of Logan’s operations. Their relationship is unsurprisingly tense. It’s not hard for Knight to find others Logan has offended to help him get revenge. And the Kabashis are after Logan both for rescuing one of their enslaved women and for demanding a huge cut of their profits.
Logan’s obvious repulsion by the abuse of women isn’t the only suggestion that he might be a little less vile than his associates on either side of the law. When he cries after various murders, we might suspect him of putting on a show for tactical reasons; but Johnson makes sure that he always does it when there’s no one around to impress.
Ferdinando happens to be the director’s cousin, but his casting is not mere nepotism. His performance is the film’s single strongest element. We can see Logan falling apart as his circumstances grow more and more dire.
Much of the time, Johnson sticks to handheld camera walking with or behind Logan, but he’s not above cranking up the style now and again, as in the opening raid, which transpires in slo-mo with only music (provided by The The) on the soundtrack. Because of the contrast to the more realistic footage, this is a little jarring.
There are two problems that may mar your enjoyment. I’ve heard a lot of different English accents in about a thousand films, but I didn’t recognize the one in Hyena, and now and again I couldn’t understand what the characters were saying. And then there’s the ending. Obviously, there’s no way to describe it without spoiling, but it’s a type of ending that usually drives me crazy, and this time was no exception.