You can only go so far with a slick style, cool characters, and nothing else. "Johnny Was" goes so far, plus two, maybe three steps more.
The film is directed by Mark Hammond and written by Brendan Foley, both Irish natives making their debut here. It's tempting to note inspirations from the Guy Ritchie school of filmmaking, although "Johnny Was" carefully avoids such whiz-bang storytelling. In fact, the much of the movie is more interested in the quieter moments of character - the first shot of the villain, in fact, is done in almost entire silence, our baddie only stopping to slowly gently shush a hapless victim.
The villain is Julius (Eriq La Salle, in a wickedly enjoyable departure from his usual work), the head of a Jamaican drug gang. He's smooth and devilish, frightening in his composure. Julius does business out of the flat of addict girlfriend Rita (Irish pop star Samantha Mumba), which is just under the flat of former IRA bomber Johnny Doyle (Vinnie Jones), who, in turn, lives under Ras (Lennox Lewis - yes, the boxer), a pot-smoking prophet and pirate radio DJ who preaches peace and is viewed as a religious figurehead by many in the community.
The very peculiarity of such a mixture is the key to the movie's success. Here, tucked away in a corner of London, are three levels of criminals of varying degrees of moral purity. (The stacking of highest to lowest can't be a coincidence.) Julius is cold and violent; Johnny has a tortured past that he's desperate to lose; Ras breaks laws but is left alone by the cops because, as he explains, he spreads the message of peace.
Their worlds formally collide when Johnny's former terrorism mentor (Patrick Bergin) breaks out of prison and, with an injured young accomplice (Laurence Kinlan) in tow, comes to Johnny looking for a place to hide from the authorities. Being a man of violence himself, Flynn finds an in with Julius and his gang, which only complicates the whole mess. Long story short, soon Johnny and Rita (who have conveniently fallen for each other) are busy running for their lives against Julius, Flynn, and the cops.
If that last sentence seems a bit too simplistic, that's because the whole movie just sort of gives in, churning out a generic action plot that's not up to par for these intriguing characters. The interplay here is wonderful (there's not a sorry performance in the bunch, and that even includes Roger Daltrey in a kicking bit part) and the foundation of Johnny's world is tight and engaging, yet Foley's screenplay fizzles too early. Great care is put into creating the characters and their connections to each other, but too little effort is given to what to do with them once all the pieces have been put into play. And so we get shoot-outs and chase scenes when the movie doesn't really need them. (If only the script had provided a resolution that's more hushed and introspective, a showdown of wits and words worthy of such curious characters and the film's study of violence, evil, and haunted pasts.) As it is, the action's not so much bad as it is out of place. The film does redeem itself with a snappy ending, but by then, the story's almost moot.
The real savior of the film is the soundtrack, carpeted wall to wall with reggae both old school and brand new. The music allows the movie - and us - to chill, while the playful use of intros and outros help kick the story along in all the right ways. (Most enjoyable is an early edit that allows the drop of a record player's needle to kick off a scene. It's film as music, in a sense.)
So yes, "Johnny Was" has little going for it besides attitude. Ah, but what attitude. These are terrific characters carefully designed, delivering dialogue that crackles and bursting with a raw energy that drives the whole thing forward with gusto. Too bad they get stuck without much to do.
Clean when it needs to be and gritty when it needs to be, "Johnny Was" looks spiffy in this solid presentation, maintaining the film's original 1.78:1 widescreen format. Although the DVD cover does not label it as such, the image is 16:9 enhanced.
Pick between Dolby 5.1 surround or 2.0 stereo. Either way, you get a strong, crisp soundtrack. Optional subtitles are available in English and Spanish.
Nothing but the trailer for this title and a handful of other First Look releases.
There's enough expert acting, clever writing, and nonstop coolness here to make up for the disappointing final act. Fans of meditative gangster flicks, especially of the British/Irish variety, will find plenty to enjoy here. Recommended.