The funny thing about British gangster movies is there are so few of them. While the list of New York mafia movies would extend beyond the tip of Long Island, the list for the Brits wouldn’t even top Big Ben. I imagine a lot of this has to do with a perceived lack of violence among the Tommies. Guy Ritchie has made a few attempts to dissuade this notion, but for the most part it lingers. The Long Good Friday speaks directly of gangsters peacefully coexisting. But it just wouldn’t be an exciting gangster movie if the toughs sat around on yachts smoking big cigars and discussing the numbers.
The film gets off to an odd start and never really relaxes. The first, let’s call it a good five minutes, are completely dialogue free. Strangely enough people, even main characters, are talking but not at a volume designed to convey information to the audience. Instead we’re treated to several scenes with little to connect them and virtually nothing to provide understanding. But that’s ok. The plot will return to this string of events in due time. In the mean time we get to follow around Bob Hoskins in his break out role. That’s right. Before he was Mario to Dennis Hopper’s Koopa or Smee to Dustin Hoffman’s Hook he was a respectable British gangster with plans to return London to her former financial glory and bring the 1988 Olympics to The Big Smoke. I like to think this movie actually takes place after Hook and Mr. Smee is merely returning to London to go legit and invest his recently acquired booty in real estate. It’s probably before he tried to make it big in Hollywood and ended up an alcoholic private eye for cartoon characters.
The story itself is pretty basic. Hoskins is in the middle of a meeting with investors, including the New York mafia, for his big investment plans when things get “interrupted” by a boyish Pierce Brosnan and other goons. Hoskins then has to race to put his house back in order before the New York boys are scared off. The main conflict’s believability completely falls apart at the climax of the movie though I strongly suspect this was due to the writer Barrie Keefe’s underlying desire to motivate the British people to return to their seat on the global stage. In the 21st Century it may seem hard for the younger crowd to imagine, but London was once the seat of global commerce. One hundred years ago British colonial holdings still spanned the globe and barrels of oil were measured in pounds. Well, I made that last part up. But still. After two world wars Her Majesty’s Government was deep in debt and her colonies were desperate for autocracy. The social movement sprang up and destroyed what was left of Britain’s industrial might and by 1979 I’m sure many people shared Keefe’s desire to see London rise from the ashes and become a seat of power in the new global economy. The potential was certainly there. If London could have taken the road paved by California the Silicon Valley could have been the Silicon Island. Obviously all this is over simplified for the sake of comparison, but you see my point. It’s no wonder Jeremy Clarkson loved this movie.
Hoskin’s character Harold isn’t so much a stereotypical gangster then. He’s a metaphor for the British leadership’s failure to recognize the severity of her own internal strife through over simplification and miscommunication. Harold was ill-informed at the start of the movie and he was over-confident at the end. His enemies have about five lines in the whole movie, one of which was ad libbed. I submit that this again plays to the metaphor. Because while Harold faces a treacherous foe it pales in comparison to his struggle with his own ego. He showed a continual disregard for the advice of his cronies while bitterly clinging to the methods of the past. Perhaps the reason the subtext works so well is because it has been true throughout history. Whether it was the Romans underestimating the problems caused by the Germanic barbarians, Napolean’s underestimation of the Russian winter, or the United Kingdom’s own underestimation of the discontent of her colonies history has proven that power breeds complacency and dulls the spear. Even now as America continues to overburden her credit she underestimates the power of a communist country more than a billion strong. It’s always the economic attacks you’re the least prepared for.
Hoskin really does a bang up job and even delivers an exceptional monologue at the end that will every good Brit on their feet saluting the Queen. His acting is matched by a lovely young Helen Mirren whose vital role I have completely disregarded for the sake of brevity.
Ah, but Enosh never mind the grand metaphors, is the movie worth watching? Well that depends on your sexual orientation. In fact I’m fairly certain that one of the movie’s taglines when it was originally released was “The ladies will come for the Pierce Brosnan shower scene, but they’ll stay for the Bob Hoskins shower scene.” Let’s face it. Nothing really drives home the melodrama quite like a hairy chested man lathering up in slow motion for three minutes. Especially when coupled with a bizarre early 80’s score.