CARDBOARD GANGSTERS (Ireland/ 18/ 92 mins)Directed by Mark O’Connor. Starring John Connors, Fionn Walton, Kierston Wareing, Jimmy Smallhorne.
THE PLOT: 24-year-old DJ Jay (John Connors) is also a small-time drug dealer who lives with unknowing mother in the self-described jungle of Darndale. He dreams of moving to Marbella, but that will have to be put on hold right now. He’s lost his dole and is short on cash. His girlfriend Sarah (Toni O’Rourke) is up the pole too. Knocking off off-licences just won’t cut it. He makes a move towards dealing in harder drugs with his mates, including best friend Dano (Fionn Walton). This catches the attention of local Mr Big, Derra (Jimmy Smallhorne) who doesn’t like someone else moving in on his turf. A flirtation with Derra’s wife Kim (Kierston Wareing) also complicates matters…
THE VERDICT: Mark O’Connor’s fourth feature’ Cardboard Gangsters’ is undoubtedly his best. While he showed early promise with ‘Between The Canals’ and ‘King Of The Travellers’, there was a misstep with the muddled ‘Stalker’. ‘Cardboard Gangsters’ shows his cinematic potential come to full fruition here, with a clear confidence in his directorial style, use of local colour and a story that grabs you early on.
Co-written by O’Connor with lead actor Connors, who also featured in ‘King Of The Travellers’ and ‘Stalker’, the story takes a straightforward approach to the characters. They are simply drug dealers in the kind of story that could be ripped from a newspaper headline. However, O’Connor is also clear about the fact that this is a highly dangerous game, not for “cardboard gangsters” as one of Derra’s cronies puts it. Jay’s journey from the small-time to the big-time sees him wrestle with his conscience about how far he’s willing to go to protect and provide for his family. Breaking into a house and threatening someone with a chainsaw is nothing compared to deciding whether to pull the trigger or not.
Jay has a gradual character arc which is revealed in complex layers, aided by a commanding performance by Connors. He’s got a strong physical presence, but his performance is a lot more than that. He really gets down to what makes Jay tick, even though Jay doesn’t always make the right choices for himself and others. There are some similarities here to Noel Clarke’s London-based ‘Hood’ trilogy. There’s a very street feel to the film, honest about its characters and the environment that created them. O’Connor keeps them relatable and yet at a cautious distance.
‘Cardboard Gangsters’ is very much a modern Irish crime film which pulls no punches. Even amid all the threats, fights and shoot-outs, it remains a thoughtful character piece with an ending that is realistic, rather than optimistic. It’s a big step forward for both O’Connor and Connors, showcasing their talents while remaining true to the story and its locale. After travelling around many international film festivals, ‘Cardboard Gangsters’ is a terrific slice of Dublin life that deserves to do well with local audiences.
RATING: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor

  • emerb

    Directed by Mark O’Connor, “Cardboard Gangsters” is an Irish gangland film starring John Connors (Love/Hate) and it gives us a fascinating, realistic and at times terrifying insight into crime, drugs and poverty in Dublin. Shot on location in Darndale, the story follows Jay Connolly (Connors) and his friends as they attempt to seize money, power and women through building up their own drug dealing empire. It’s not long before events spiral out of control as they encroach
    on the territory of established head of the local drug trade Derra Murphy (Jimmy Smallhorne). We watch as Jay transforms from a wannabe DJ to a violent, ruthless dealer who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. The grim reality is that, while the film exaggerates some elements, gangland Dublin is still alive today as we see from the extensive media coverage of the ongoing feuds, stabbings and shootings that ends up destroying lives, communities and families.

    Jay is a young man who has been hanging around Darndale with his mates for years. He is sick of his sordid life as a part-time DJ and small-time drug dealer in marijuana. He dreams of a better life for his family in Spain, away from where he is stuck, in an area victimized by gangs, drugs and social problems. In order to
    settle some family debts, he decides to make a move to the more lucrative world of dealing heroin but this doesn’t sit well with middle-aged Derra who controls the majority of the drug trafficking in Darndale with an iron fist. The conflict between them escalates further when Derra learns that his wife (Wareing) has recently had a fling with Jay. Things start to turn very nasty indeed…..

    Who can forget John Connors’ superb pipe-bomber Patrick from Love/Hate? He gives us an equally impressive and commanding performance in the lead role here. As well as acting he also co-wrote the film with the director and he carries most of the film. His character flips between being threatening and terrifying to thoughtful and emotional when required and he has a real presence on screen throughout. His performance was based on his own personal experiences of struggle, hardship and violence in Darndale, where he grew up and still lives. His
    engaging performance is the main reason that the film works as well as it does. However, that’s not to say that his co-stars should be overlooked either. Each of them is fully committed, genuine and entirely credible as a group of young petty criminal growing up together on the Northside of Dublin. Many of them were Connors’ own friends and apparently one actor was even out on parole to film! In particular Fionn Walton’s intense performance as Dano, the rash and fiery best friend of John Connors, is memorable. He steals almost every scene in which he appears and I think he could have a bright future ahead of him as an actor. One complaint I would have is that the female characters have such a minor part to play.

    “Cardboard Gangsters” is a top class Irish crime drama. The film is extremely well directed, the writing is sharp and both the cinematography and soundtrack are also memorable. Most of the songs are provided by Irish artists (including Damien Dempsey) and work well with the action unfolding, particularly one memorable and stylish music sequence during a drug dealing chase. It gives us a gives a visceral yet true to life insight of life for some people in working class Dublin. Some will no doubt be appalled at the apparent glamorisation of bloody violence, sex, drug dealing and gang culture but this film isn’t meant for you if you’re of a sensitive nature. They openly discuss drugs with children around, brandish guns freely around the house and even resort to using chainsaws to exact revenge – it’s a warts and all movie and filmed in a real lived-in environment. This vivid portrayal of Dublin crime is a most welcome contribution to Irish cinema and I suspect it will appeal to wide audience at home and abroad, perhaps even to be remembered as one of the best Irish films to date. A very pleasant surprise and a must see.