With the possible exceptions of BRIGHTON ROCK and GET CARTER,"The Long Good Friday" has a strong case in being the best British gangster film yet produced.It thankfully lacks the jokey,facetious and overtly bloody attitudes that has plagued most UK-based hybrids since the 1990's (as personified by Guy Ritchie and others).It's occasional lapses into nastiness and schematic excesses are easily outweighed by an excellent script (which possesses considerable caustic wit),fine direction,great performances and memorable scenes.
Gangland boss Harold Shand (Bob Hoskins) is on the verge of something big in his native London's docklands;replacing the declining port-side areas with vast new modern developments and buildings,even with a view to holding a future Olympic Games there.There is however a considerable fly in the ointment;would-be mafia backers are concerned as Harold's manor and underlings are subjected to a campaign of murder and bombings,later revealed to be the work of the IRA,who think Shand was responsible for the deaths of several of their members (when in fact he wasn't).An enraged Harold plans his revenge,but should he go ahead and do so?
The basic plot of "The Long Good Friday" is perhaps the film's only real weak point.In it's favour,it is certainly unusual but often somewhat over-complicated (several viewings may be needed to properly connect all it's threads) and a little far-fetched;the fact it is set around Easter (Ireland has had some very important events occurring around this holiday period throughout it's long history) may be intended irony.But in the midst of the considerable quality around it,these are modest complaints.John McKenzie's direction (what a shame his subsequent work has been much lower profile) is very well-judged,being either fast,exciting,subtle or reflective when the situation demands it,serving the thoughtful,literate,clever,often droll script by Barrie Keeffe.The characters are not the familiar stereotypes you'd expect in such gangster dramas,and performers like Bryan Marshall,Alan King and Eddie Constantine (in a rare English-speaking part) are given slightly more depth to roles that could have been mere ciphers.Helen Mirren is first class as Harold's mistress,one of the most interesting gangster's molls ever put on screen,but the entire film is dominated by the career defining performance of Bob Hoskins.His searing,commanding presence as Shand is outstanding,carrying conviction in every moment.Hoskins' portrayal is arguably the most anti of anti-heroes in cinematic history.Harold Shand thinks himself as a businessman and no longer a criminal with the 1980's about to loom,with apparent peace with rival gangs for a decade further emphasising this point.But with the uncontrollable mayhem taking place around him threatening his legitimate credentials,Harold is more than prepared to dish out some extremely brutal (if not sado-masochistic) treatment to find those responsible so the lucrative deal can go forward,making cynical,hypocritical remarks about the decline of various neighbourhoods along the way.
With the exception of a brief view of Tower Bridge near the beginning,director MacKenzie does not fall into the trap of familiar tourist views but less known London back streets and perhaps the last real view of the UK capital's somewhat neglected docklands in the pre-Thatcherite/Yuppie era in the late 70's/early 80's before it's redevelopment,Canary Wharf and all. This aspect of the plot turned out to be fascinatingly prophetic and accurate (if in a slightly different context),along with hopes for a London-staged Olympic Games.What with his desire for enterprise and virulent hate for Irish Republicans,it is no surprise that the character of Harold Shand could be perceived as a hero with certain right-wing types in Britain! Hoskins in fact often makes this most unpleasant of characters sympathetic (with some witty one-liners part of his repertoire) in the midst of similarly unsavoury individuals.His grotesque arrogance and megalomania however get the better of him when he somehow thinks he can take on the even more ferocious and brutal elements within the IRA.He is warned of the risks by one of his closest associates,fresh-faced Jeff (who is killed by Harold in a savage outburst) but to no avail.The irony of course,is that Harold himself did not instigate this chaos;it the aforementioned Jeff and one of his most trusted friends and associates,Colin,a homosexual,who fell prey to the dual temptations of sex and money while in Belfast (doing an errand without Shand's knowledge or approval),placing Harold's business plans in dire jeopardy.
The support cast has many future TV and Film stars who turn up every few minutes:Gillian Taylforth,Paul Freeman,Dexter Fletcher,Paul Barber,Karl Howman and Derek Thompson among them.The most notable of all is Pierce Brosnan,in a one word role as a IRA hit-man.It is Brosnan who appears with Hoskins in the film final and most memorable scene.The infamous abattoir sequence (with Shand's rival gang members hung upside down on meat hooks) is unforgettably horrifying and darkly funny,along with Harold's apocalyptic rage after finding out of the IRA's campaign against him. But the final drive away,with Brosnan holding Hoskins at gunpoint is now justly famous,holding on Harold's face seemingly endlessly but ingeniously,with all number of expressions telling us so much.This aspect of Hoskins' performance may be it's most impressive,despite being wordless.There has been a problem in some of Bob Hoskins' film roles since;undeniably a very fine actor,Hoskins however has sometimes fallen into the speech patterns and mannerisms of the role that made him a star into some other parts he has played,much to his detriment,though this has mostly been the exception rather than the rule.
In retrospect,"The Long Good Friday" has a lot to answer for;many other British filmmakers have followed it's example for nearly three decades in mostly resistible imitations,but the original has not dated much at all and is still superior to the virtually all of it's prototypes.
RATING:8 out of 10.
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