R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: The British Godfather

Don’t you ever tell me what I can or can’t do! Bent law can be tolerated for as long as they’re lubricating, but you have become definitely parched. If I was you, I’d run for cover and close the hatch, ’cause you’re gonna wind up on one of those meat hooks, my son.
-Harold Shand

With every country that shares the fascination with organized crime in their film industry, there’s always a film that set the standard for other film makers to follow. Of course in the U.S. that film is The Godfather. Francis Ford Coppola’s Crime Epic has spawned countless imitations. It also opened a lot of doors for film makers who had been unable, until the release of The Godfather, to use the degree of violence necessary to show crime in a more realistic light. Its legacy is a myriad of great films from Goodfellas to Donnie Brasco. Every country that loves to make Mob Films seems to have their own Godfather. In Hong Kong that film is John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, in Japan its Battles Without Honor or Humanity directed by Kinji Fukasaku, and in Britain, the most important gangster film is John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday.

The Cockney Gangster Flick has had a real resurgence in the last few years. Guy Ritchie started the trend in 1998 with his breakthrough Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and then came back for more with Snatch in 2000. Others followed suit as Jonathan Glazer released Sexy Beast the same year. That film earned its star Ben Kingsley an Oscar Nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The latest major film in this category to be released is Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake, which garnered a strong critical reception. The blueprints for many of the themes found in these pictures were laid in 1980 by John Mackenzie’s movie.

The Long Good Friday Starring Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren. Directed by John Mackenzie

The film stars Bob Hoskins as Harold Shand, England’s overlord of the criminal underworld. Shand has lead the way to peace among the various London gangs for a decade. Harold is about to make a land deal that will make him billions and even possibly allow him to go straight. He has worked out a financial plan with the American mafia that will make him one of the wealthiest men in Europe, but on the eve of his ascent to legitimate greatness, everything falls apart.

First Harold’s mother is nearly killed when a car bomb takes out the gang leader’s car. Harold’s best courier and closest friend is stabbed as he goes for a swim. A bomb turns up at Harold’s casino, but thankfully has not gone off. Finally, the top floor of Harold’s restaurant is blown to bits as he drives up to it. All of this is going on as his American investor have come into town to sign the deal.

Almost all of the success of The Long Good Friday can be attributed to Bob Hoskins’ performance. Harold is a multi-layered character that belongs right up there with Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone and James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. Despite his short stature and less than impressive good looks, Hoskins is able to give Harold roguish charm and imposing nature. Harold is completely feared by all around him, and yet completely respected and even loved. He has provided for everyone around him and promises to keep doing so with his new deal, so the campaign of terror against his organization confounds the British underworld Boss.

Knowing that he is feared among his minions makes it harder for Harold to find the culprit behind his recent shakeups. The gangster storms the streets of London, sending his troops in armed to the teeth to find the men responsible for jeopardizing all their futures. Hoskins looks as if he was a WWII general, instilling his men with confidence and “rattling his saber” before ordering them out to do his dirty work.

Hoskins gives Harold an underlying feeling of desperation in quieter moments. He knows his investors are in town and if he is unsuccessful in quelling this little uprising, he will lose all he has worked for. Most surprising is a scene with his mistress, Victoria (Helen Mirren). In the entirety of the film’s previous running time, Harold is the picture of masculinity. He rules all he surveys, and is so in control one would think that he legitimately ran England as a whole. Once in the confines of his home, Harold is complete putty in Victoria’s hands. The two admit their fear of the situation and how it has affected their potential prosperity.

Mirren is the picture of grace in this film. Victoria is the public face of Harold’s empire and does damage control when necessary. When Harold’s investors start questioning the circumstances of the bombings, it is Victoria that must calm their fears. She, like Harold, appears strong in the face of this adversity, but privately weeps with fear. It is not often a female character this well played appears in this type of film. Guy Ritchie’s pictures are completely devoid of any strong women, and suffer a bit due to it. This is just another factor in showing The Long Good Friday’s superiority.

The film is actually full of great supporting characters and cameos. Harold’s friend Colin is portrayed by Paul Freeman, who appeared as Indiana Jones’ villainous rival Belloq in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. Though not on screen very long, his performance is memorable. Future 007 Pierce Brosnan appears as an assassin in the picture. His role was first conceived as completely silent, but on set Brosnan supposedly improvised a terrific line that the director decided to keep. The most memorable supporting character is probably P.H. Moriarty’s Razors. Fans of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels will remember him in that film as Hatchet Harry, the film’s main heavy. Here Moriarty’s Razors is a mountain of a man with a huge scars on his face and torso. He is Harold’s bodyguard and number one killer. Moriarty is able to do more with body language and presence than many are able to do with whole monologues.

Everything just keeps going back to Hoskins. He single handedly carries the film on his shoulders with a subtle performance that is allowed to be grandiose at times. The portrayal is just masterful and really put Hoskins on the map. Take for instance a scene where the crime lord goes to question a drug dealer in a bad neighborhood. When questioning the snitch, he is forceful and mean-spirited, getting his way by having Razors slash the unsuspecting man. Afterwards, Hoskins is completely casual with some kids that are attempting to hustle him, even admiring their nerve. As they drive away, Hoskins even takes time to be concerned about the community and its recent economic downturn. Most Gangster Films wouldn’t bother to imbue their characters with this much depth, but here, Harold is a fully rounded individual.

In actuality, Hoskins’ performance came in jeopardy by the picture’s producers. After the completion of the movie, some executives feared that Hoskins’ accent may be too thick for American audiences to understand him. It took Hoskins suing the studio to stop film makers from dubbing over his voice. This would have shattered a great portrayal by an actor that uses his voice almost as a weapon in and of itself.

Director John McKenzie directs the film at an expert pace. The Long Good Friday builds and builds to a boiling point where Hoskins finally unleashes his fury. The way the film is edited together is reminiscent of The Godfather as the film goes as far as it can before letting loose with its famous series of cinematic killings. The Long Good Friday‘s violence comes in even shorter bursts as most of the murders are pulled back just as you feel the tension has been pulled as thin as it will go, such as when Harold has an entire lineup of suspects hung upside down on meat hooks.

When McKenzie finally lets loose, Hoskins is finally allowed to put all his cards on the table. In other scenes, Harold is kept in check by letting others do his carnage for him. He seems to be a puppeteer, pulling the strings on his army of goons, instilling fear to all in their path. When his prey is finally in front of him, Hoskins has Harold jump in with both feet. Though he faces off with what turns out to be a seemingly insurmountable foe, Harold has no qualms about letting loose with everything he’s got. One scene shows that Harold is no stranger to getting his hands dirty as a subordinate that has turned on him pays the ultimate price.

A funny side note has Harold breaking an unwritten rule of cinema in this scene. In almost every other film I have seen, whenever a combatant breaks a bottle in order to use it as a weapon, he is always instantly defeated. This is called my Oharra Rule. It is named for Robert Wall’s villainous henchman in Enter the Dragon who tries this technique on Bruce Lee. This of course, does not work in any capacity and Oharra is easily defeated and killed by Mr. Lee. Hoskins is able to prove himself the exception to this rule by breaking a bottle over this underling’s head and then slashing his throat open. The scene has an amazing tempo that serves as a starting point for Harold’s massacre.

The film ends with a tight close-up on Harold. This is really as it should be, as Hoskins encompasses the film’s power. Though not enough have seen it, The Long Good Friday has a terrific legacy and should be checked out by fans who like their gangsters with a more British sensibility. Guy Ritchie’s villains have borrowed heavily from Harold over the years as well as many other themes. Fans of Hoskins’ performance in the Luc Besson production Unleashed should seek out McKenzie’s film also. Those just wanting a bad ass gangster film with a hard boiled lead could do much worse than The Long Good Friday’s, and to tell you the truth, they couldn’t do much better.

Picture Credits: impawards.com, Outnow.ch