My knowledge of England and all of its districts, ‘burbs, provinces, or whatever they call them over there, is as extensive as my knowledge of, say, particle physics — which is nonexistent. So, as I sit down to watch Essex Boys, a movie that takes place in Essex, which I assume is a town or city in England, I really have no knowledge of what the name implies. When watching American movies, the appearance of a city in the title gives one clues as to what the movie might be about. For example, a movie with “Boston” in the title will almost certainly center on the Irish; a movie with “Queens” or “Bronx” will almost certainly be about Italians; and a movie with “Harlem” in the title will almost certainly be about blacks. With Essex Boys, I am a blind man, open to knowledge.
Essex Boys is told through voiceover narration by Billy, a young cabdriver who becomes involve in the ganster lifestyle quite by accident. Billy is a cool customer, much too cool and calm for someone of his age, which I’d guess is early ’20s. Billy gets a job driving around Jason, a fresh-out-of-prison mid-level gangster, who instead of going straight home after years in prison, goes to a fish market to beat the living daylights out of someone from his past. Billy follows Jason’s orders without question, although he’s somewhat surprised by the violence.
Jason is played by Sean Bean as a temperamental gangster, liable to go off the handle at any moment. Next to Billy’s calm demeanor, Jason is a volcano waiting for the wrong moments to erupt. After Billy proves himself to be a capable wheelman for Jason and the gangsters during a second altercation, he is taken into their confidence, and thus begins his career as a low-level wheelman for the Essex underworld, much to the dismay (and disapproval) of his girlfriend. How ready is Billy for the gangster life? In an opening narration, he informs us, “I’ll try anything once, except bestiality.”
Essex Boys is yet another Goodfellas, a movie about a newcomer to the underworld lifestyle, who finds he likes it until things start to get out of hand, and then is unable to get out. While the movie is told with voiceover from Billy, who informs us of the players and the situations, the movie is split between Billy’s entry into the underworld and Jason’s attempts to return to his former glory after 5 years of incarceration.
Jason is accomplice by his long-suffering wife, Lisa, who not only knows about his lifestyle, but also is actively involved in it and might have plans of her own. The movie moves between various plots, and sometimes I got lost in the shuffle of players mostly because the English accent is sometimes so thick or so breezy that I wasn’t able to fully catch all the dialogue, narration, or explanations. The various plot machinations all involve a power struggle among the heads of the underworld’s individual factions, with Jason and Billy in the middle — Jason attempting to gain back what he lost any way he can, and Billy driving everyone around and being involved in everything, and yet involved in nothing.
The movie’s turning point comes when Billy unwittingly becomes an accomplice in the murder of a girl who Jason had been sleeping with. The girl dies after being raped by Jason, and even worst for Billy, everything transpired in his home and also in his bed. It’s at this point that Essex Boys takes on the same general pattern of all gangster movies about novices entering the lifestyle ala Goodfellas. The first hour or so is generally the “feel good” part of the movie, as our protagonist (Billy in this case) enters the lifestyle, likes it, and decides to stay.
The first halves of all Goodfellas-inspired movies are categorized by good times and a general sense of “giddiness.” The second half is when the lifestyle, and the movie, shows itself for what it is — in the case of the lifestyle, a bloody and unforgiving world; in the case of the movie, a bloody and violent film. It’s at this turning point that we begin to ask the question: Will Billy escape the lifestyle, and if he does, just how much will it cost him?
Sean Bean gives a sterling performance as the explosive Jason. Bean plays the character as Joe Pesci’s Tommy, only taller. As Billy, Charlie Creed-Miles is rock solid, going from confident wheelman who looks too confident for someone so young, then to a young man way over his head, without missing a beat.
The direction by Terry Winsor is grounded in reality and doesn’t wander off into the Guy Ritchie world of saturated colors and crazy camera angles. Winsor shoots the movie without flare, but everything is very well-done. Alex Kingston is especially good as Lisa, a woman whose motives are completely unpredictable until she wants us to know.
Terry Winsor (director) / Terry Winsor, Jeff Pope (screenplay)
CAST: Sean Bean …. Jason Locke
Alex Kingston …. Lisa Locke
Charlie Creed-Miles …. Billy Reynolds
Tom Wilkinson …. John Dyke