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