Gerard Johnson’s HYENA is one of three Film4-produced films to hit the cinemas over the last fortnight, along with the modern Western-in-Yorkshire CATCH ME DADDY (Daniel Wolfe) and seductive drama THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (Peter Strickland). Of the three, Johnson’s perhaps fits most into the stock homegrown format that we’ve come to expect from the Brit film house giant, being a classic dramatisation of a wonky cop caught up in all kinds of moral deliberations, and starring our beloved Peter Ferdinando and Stephen Graham. It looks like there might be an actor-director partnership brewing, as Ferdinando took the lead role in Johnson’s gritty serial killer debut TONY in 2009. Helmed by the duo, HYENA packs a lot of initial punch – but if the story really follows through to the bitter end is debatable.
Only a handful of gigs on from STARRED UP (David Mackenzie’s compelling prison father-and-son drama, also produced by Film4), we witness Ferdinando go from playing the don drug dealer and top businessman of life inside, Dennis Spencer – completely at ease with his dictatorial position – to Detective Inspector Michael Logan, the “hyena” in charge of his police pack, who doesn’t even know himself how far from the straight and narrow he essentially is. It’s hard to gage whether he’s just a spineless weakling who can’t commit one way or the other, or just a morally conflicted man dealing with a sticky situation as best as he can – a ‘baddie’ or a ‘goodie’ respectfully.
For Logan appears to have a certain selfish weakness – a streak of cruel self-interest that is reflected in the characteristics of the animal the film is named after – that lands himself and those around him in the shitter half the time. On the other hand, he shows compassion and loyalty to his band of copper cronies, as well as trying to gallantly protect damsel-in-distress Ariana (Elisa Lasowski) from being sold as a sex slave by Albanian gangsters. For the audience, he’s most definitely a hard one to track emotionally.
HYENA opens with Logan’s pack drug raiding a nightclub, bursting slow-motion onto the scene, fully kitted out in riot gear and accompanied by the sounds of ‘The The’ (AKA Matt Johnson, AKA the director’s brother), who wrote an electrifying score that lends the apt flavour of mania to much of the drug-fuelled action. We are immediately immersed in an unapologetic, amoral, London-basement-brewed level of filth, where the dealings are authentically scummy without succumbing to cliched gritty British realist tropes. Logan is a functioning addict with fingers in the Turkish drug ring pies, but his game is turned upside down when some Albanian gangsters brutally murder his prime contact and take over the London scene. Not only must he gingerly try to negotiate his status with these unfamiliar players, but his department is under internal investigation by the smarmy Taylor (Richard Dormer), and his ex-partner Knight (Stephen Graham) has been put in charge of his unit. And it was all going so well for the alpha and his pack…
Johnson’s script, although feels at home and fresh, is too ambitious and cannot quite hold the level of exciting originality that the first splashes of neon scenes introduce. As soon as Logan’s band of crooked cops disperse, the plot thickens, the body count rises, and the film loses its visceral grip piece by piece, until the level of unbelievability is too high to follow. Interjections of Matt Johnson’s music, however, always elevate whatever scene they are paired with into a dark and ludicrous space which evokes a taste of Logan’s inner turmoil – without which, we would be hopelessly lost.
There is certainly much to gain from watching Ferdinando and Graham bounce off each other’s energy, as their characters aggressively knock heads in their murky journey into the gutter together. But Logan’s terminal, nihilistic uncertainty with himself, which loses itself in the underground maze that Johnson has feverishly set up, keeps us from fully engaging with their friendship, and what could have been a match made in heaven is ultimately a little flat.
Of the three releases, HYENA tags behind for its overly ambitious and confused storyline. However Ferdinando cooks up a angst-ridden cop storm that doesn’t feel borrowed from previous characters like so many others, and everything is to play for in the future of his collaborations with director Gerard Johnson.
…..And CATCH ME DADDY kicks the shit out of the other two. The photography & artwork speaks for itself:
HYENA, CATCH ME DADDY and THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY are in cinemas now.