Actor Idris Elba debuts as a director with a slick and thoroughly entertaining drama, Yardie, which also has a killer soundtrack. The story of Jamaican-born D, for Dennis, the film begins in and around Kingston in 1973, the streets of the ghetto bloodied by a gang war. D’s brother, Jerry Dread, a DJ, hatches a plan to reconcile the sides, which seems to be working, when he gathers the gangs’ leaders out of his massive crowd for an onstage handshake. But after a moment of triumph, Jerry is shot by a boy named Clancy, about D’s age, and everyone scatters, beginning what becomes D’s long struggle for vengeance.
Over the next several years, D fathers a child with his sweetheart, Yvonne—she subsequently moves to London for a better life—and becomes the right-hand man of one of the gang leaders, King Fox, who, after the war has ended (it’s now 1983), has seemingly cornered the Kingston markets in music production and drugs. D, still stewing about his brother’s death and bent on vengeance, starts an untimely fight that gets him exiled to London for some cooling off and to grease the wheels for King Fox’s expansion there. Unsurprisingly, D manages to reconnect with a wary Yvonne and their daughter, but, once again, he stirs up trouble, stepping on the toes of the London connection, Rico, a menacing, patois-slinging white man with a thumping dance hall and DJ crew.
Based on a 1992 novel, the film is overly devoted to the text’s tangled web of characters and subplots, and would have benefitted from some more judicious and pitiless adaptation, perhaps combining or cutting some characters, as well as doing a bit less telegraphing of D’s haunted life via visions of Jerry, allowing the actors to perform more nuanced variations on internal conflict rather than simply expressing it. Yardie is an action film and a revenge drama, so the hazards of D’s single-mindedness would emerge more strongly with narrative simplicity and more emotional depth. The surface here is beautiful (Elba acknowledges Spike Lee’s use of color as one of several influences) and dense, as is the language, a seemingly authentic Jamaican dialect (many of the co-stars are from the island), which can be pleasantly incomprehensible at times, adding another interesting layer to the whole. There are a number of strong performances by the supporting cast, notably Sheldon Shepherd as King Fox, though some, like D’s London friend Sticks, get lost in the necessities of the overloaded and rapidly unfolding plot.
All that said, Yardie is never not engaging, and includes some excellent camerawork to go along with its other strengths, so one might hope it becomes a valuable, if flawed, first document in Elba’s development behind the camera.