We’re back in that muddy, rainy, remote country lane in Rettendon, Essex again with director Paul Tanter’s (The Hooligan Wars, Jack Falls) new angle on who was responsible for the deaths of Essex drug dealers Tony Tucker, Pat Tate and Craig Rolfe in December 1995 in The Fall of the Essex Boys.
The grizzly crime mystery has dominated Brit gangster folklore, always posing a fresh challenge for whoever brings another version to the big screen. Tanter has found another theory intriguing enough to rouse interest and provide an appealing watch, but it still falls victim to the clichéd Brit crime flick trap that such a genre film simply can’t escape from.
After the death of an ex-copper’s 18-year-old daughter from a bad ecstasy pill supplied by the notorious Essex Boys firm at Raquel’s nightclub in Basildon, Essex, Detective Inspector Stone (Ewan Ross) starts to see the cracks form in the firm’s organisation. He uses key supergrass Darren Nicholls (Nick Nevern) to play off the rival Essex drug gangs, ultimately leading to the brutal death of drug dealers Tony Tucker (Jay Brown), Patrick Tate (Peter Barrett) and Craig Rolfe (Simon Phillips).
The no-nonsense Tanter ‘speed-directing’ style found in his previous film projects is evident again at the start of this, as we’re placed in the thick of it along with our commentator, inside witness Nicholls (Nevern). As is expected, the language is never for the faint-hearted, with swearing as much part of the uniform as the cropped hairstyles, bomber jackets and gold chains. Still, the over-enthusiastic profanity may put some off, even as the background story and characters’ motives are well established early on to warrant further viewing. Indeed, the director can’t resist reminding us of the links between football hooliganism as a release for the working-class man’s aggression and hardened criminality, as well as his and his main cast’s previous pedigree for hooligan film-making, continuing along a well-explored path they all feel comfortable on.
Unsurprisingly, Tanter relies again on his staple actor diet of Nevern, Barrett, Phillips and Ross, so fans of his previous work will not be disappointed and should expect much the same commendable performances: Barrett and Phillips manage to morph themselves into Tate and Rolfe with some ease (minus steroids enhancements) to fully convince and repulse – although Phillips’ somewhat dubious Essex accent slips in and out, but is quietly overlooked as the less talkative member of the dangerous trio. But it’s Tanter newcomer Brown who goes to town as nasty Tucker and equals Barrett for male bravado, to the point of annoying in the end. Hence, by their very portrayals, Brit gangster caricature naturally rears its ugly head.
Nevern has carte blanche with his interpretation of Nicholls – with little information on the real-life character to hand, and is tasked with reflecting the tension of being involved on both sides of the law as nervous wreck Nicholls, which he does amply, once the excitable, jarring commentary tones down a little. Ross as D.I. Stone plays it tight-lipped and deadpan, aptly suiting the whole mystery surrounding the authorities’ angle that this film is keen to peddle out, complete with a suggestive twist involving Nicholls. Don’t expect a fact-by-fact account of events, though; even real-life victim Leah Betts’ name is replaced by a generic female victim’s, further fuelling the Old Bill’s involvement and determination to rid the area of the Essex Boys plague by whatever means in this.
As the film’s stop-and-rapid-start momentum plays out to the key moment of the firms’ demise, complete with the required lads’ mag collection of hotties – headed up by Kierston Wareing as Tate’s long-suffering bird, Karen, who spends fifty percent of her screen time humping the rival, purely (it seems) to warn Mickey Steele (Robert Cavanah) of what a feared and prized thug Tate is, the end build-up to the bloody car scene feels like too much is left open to suggestion as to the real killers’ identity.
Relatively new feature screenwriter Stephen Reynolds falls back on depicting the current culprits behind bars (Steele and Jack Whomes, played by another Tanter gang recruit, Tony Denham) in the concluding scenes, even when Brit indies such as The Fall of the Essex Boys provide such fertile, daring film-making ground to seed ideas and suggestions on real-life events. It’s interesting to wonder what outcome a bolder statement could have had on the film to elevate it out of the usual mouthy, guns-blazing, testosterone-fuelled affair. Still, Tanter and cast stick to what they’re at ease with in this genre, and seem as adequately equipped as any other crew to wrap up the Essex Boys saga.