Gangsta (Cert 18)
1 Disc DVD / VOD (Distributor: Signature) Running Time: 125 minutes approx.
If you’ve watched any Belgian dramas on TV, you’ll know they are as gloomy as any Scandi thrillers, with their glacial pacing, dour aesthetic, and suburban ennui. Gangsta, from the team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, goes in the opposite direction with this beaty, retina-bursting tale of drugs and friendship.
Four teens – Adamo (Matteo Simoni), Badia (Nora Charib), Younès (Junes Lazaar) and Volt (Said Boumazoughe) – have grown up together in Antwerp wanting to become gangsters like Badia’s father Farid (Noureddine Farihi), who now runs a pizzeria to cover his dope racket. When big time dealer Orlando Marie (Werner Kolf) arrives in Antwerp to offer Farid a deal to shift his cocaine, Adamo persuades Farid to let him handle the job.
The pickup goes disastrously wrong when two corrupt policemen take some of the drugs for themselves and the rest end up in the river, with Adamo taking the blame. In retaliation, Adamo and the gang recover the sunken drugs and sell it themselves, under cutting their rivals and make big money in the process. But the group’s arrogance leads to a violent international drug war.
Gangsta is certainly an antidote to other Belgian films and TV shows aesthetically but still possesses a dark, menacing, grisly narrative within its story that paints Belgium as the sort of place to cross off your holiday destination list. Yet directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah are in their early 30’s as shown in the frantic, music video style editing and colourful presentation that offers a different take on Belgian life.
Along with the Goodfellas tribute with the film long narration courtesy of Adamo, and the Scott Pilgrim video game style intro graphics, a distinct American influence is revealed via the visuals presentation likely to help the film’s international appeal, as well as with a young cast leading the charge and a contemporary pulsating hip-hop soundtrack.
It is too easy to assume that Gangsta is glamorising the criminal funded lifestyle, which it wants you think at first then brings us and the characters down to earth by exposing the downside of treading on people for your own glory. The script cleverly builds every stage of their progress, through its peaks and troughs, by linking each one to the seven deadly sins.
Because of the surroundings they grew up in, it is natural for Adamo and his posse to follow in their footsteps of their forefathers, but stopping them is their lack of tangible motivation, having spent their youth getting high and playing video games. Adamo is a wide boy, Volt a loose cannon, Younès wants to be a break-dancer, and Badia is a kick boxer. They have no direction until Orlando’s deal lands in their lap, except Farid insists Badia is left out of it.
Being a tomboy Badia involves herself anyway complicating things when Orlando takes a shine to her but this becomes the least of their problems. Having upset the corrupt cops by undercutting their business, the group flee to Morocco, living a decadent lifestyle until they upset local gangster Hassan (Ali B.), leading to a nightclub shootout, which forces Adamo and co. to return home. Unfortunately, Hassan follows them.
Despite its unapologetic graphic violence and rampant drug use there is a lot of humour here, most of it base and vulgar, intertwined with harmless slapstick to reiterate this is a bunch of idiots we are dealing with. Some gags are tasteless, like the offensive Stephen Hawking gag or a masturbation reference concerning Badia, but these are rare misses in what is otherwise a tight screenplay that balances humour, drama, and dark action.
Some other things don’t work so well either – the 125-minute run time drags because of the exposition heavy opening act designed to introduce the cast and their world, but takes far too long in doing so. The plot doesn’t start to take form until past the thirty-minute mark and an hour later we have to steel ourselves for the 30 minutes still to come, but the final act is at least a thrilling shootout.
More of a personal quibble is the character of Badia, lauded by Adamo as a total badass kickboxer yet she ends up the damsel in distress and the nominal love interest. She may not be dolled up and only wears a (tight) mini dress in one scene but when the fists start flying Badia is always on the sidelines. A wasted opportunity to show girls can hold their own in the gangster world, especially with Orlando flanked by a female assassin.
The pacing of the film takes a while to find its groove, flitting between racy and casual, but the action is never dull, thanks in part to the garish visuals. Vivid neon colours are prevalent in the veneer, with one scene shot bathed entirely in green light, and the hip- hop video style offers plenty of flashy camera tricks to give simple shots some modern oomph.
At the risk of damning the cast with faint praise, all of whom do a great and believable job in such outlandish roles, it is a pleasant surprise that they, and the script, make us care about this group of miscreants. Given their unsavoury ambitions we shouldn’t root for them but they win us over by being the best of a bad bunch, clearly in over their heads but the only ones able to learn from their mistakes.
Billed simply as Adil and Bilall, the directors cull their influences from diverse sources which should be a recipe for disaster, but proves one of its strongest facets. A more distinct European flavour would have been nice but the duo clearly has their sights on Hollywood and this is their audition tape.
Coupled with the extreme, emetic inducing violence of Korean and Hong Kong cinema, the stylish, glossy, punchy presentation and smart script makes Gangsta the epitome of the gangster movie 21st century style.
Rating – *** ½
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