I’m starting this review of Young Soul Rebels with a blunt declaration: I don’t like this movie. At all. The remainder of what I say here mostly comprises the many and varied reasons I feel this way. They’ll never be my favourite genre, but I have no beef with murder mysteries. However, for them to work, they must have an element of mystery.
I spotted the murderer in this one very early on for two reasons. First, his character (for want of a better term — more on that later) was otherwise completely superfluous to the plot. Second, if there was any doubt before the (non) reveal, director Isaac Julien telegraphed the fact in a ridiculous, short and otherwise redundant scene. Strike one.
I’m a fanboy of the late, great African-American author, Toni Morrison, and make no bones about it. This fact has nothing to do with this movie, but I offer it up as evidence that I’m comfortable with complex stories, multiple storylines and parallel narratives. This movie attempts to do this, but fails miserably, and is much more a messy mishmash than a modern melodrama, or multi-layered mystery. If it was a little better, I could be generous and give it some credit for giving me a chance to alliterate, but it’s too poor for me to concede even that. Strike two.
The movie certainly has some redeeming qualities. When the stilted dialogue doesn’t get in the way, its evocation of mid-1970s London is right on the money, in all its seedy anti-glory. But this isn’t enough to paper over the cracks. The plot/s is/are unconvincing and demand too high a suspension of belief. This fault is writ large in the narrative, which is bad enough, but it’s constantly reinforced by small details that could and should’ve been spotted and corrected. For example, there’s a scene in which one of the two joint leads is interrogated as part of the police investigation to his friend’s murder.
After a frankly baffling exchange between the investigating officer and this character, he’s allowed the phone call he demanded almost from the start. The phone is in the interview room. Why? I’m a black Londoner, and despite having no criminal record and even working with the Criminal Justice System, I have seen the inside of police stations more times than I care to remember. They don’t have phones in interview rooms. So, big picture bad, much of which couldn’t be avoided because of the plot; little picture worse, because it further stripped away the movie’s credibility.
Young Soul Rebels: What gave it away? 😎
Some of the direction in Young Soul Rebels works, particularly the outdoor action scenes. Unfortunately, this only serves to highlight what doesn’t, which is pretty much everything else. Despite the presence of three genuinely good actors Sophie Okonedo (probably best known for one of her lesser performances in Hotel Rwanda), Eamonn Walker (who joined the black British acting talent exodus to Hollywood and became a star as Kareem Said in award-laden prison drama, Oz) and Ray Shell (versatile American actor, producer and author of the classic novel, Iced), virtually every scene feels contrived and clunky. This is in part because the four genuinely good actors are underused.
Okonedo’s character is two-dimensional and wildly inconsistent. Walker is barely more than eye candy, and Shell, at that time, the far highest-profile actor in the production, is reduced to a couple of minutes doing a pretty good impersonation of Greg Edwards, who was fairly well known as a soul music DJ on a pop music station uncannily similar to the one featured in this movie. Frances Barber (Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) also features, but good actor though she undoubtedly is; her performance here feels like she dialled it in.
So, where does this leave us? With a movie with poorly drawn and unconvincing characters, mostly wooden performances and a wholly unsatisfying product. Some of the scenes and acting were genuinely cringe-worthy. They reminded me of a school production staged by a drama teacher more concerned with getting their message across than cultivating credible performances.
I believe it’s telling that neither of the forgettable leads nor pretty much anyone else — other than the trio I mentioned above — have gone on to greater things. Perhaps the biggest fault with Young Soul Rebels is a cultural one that neither director/co-writer Isaac Julien nor anyone else connected with the project had the power to fix; it tried too hard.
It feels as if Young Soul Rebels couldn’t decide whether it was a buddy-buddy movie, a gay romance, a straight romance, or the aforementioned murder mystery, so it tried to be all of these things and utterly failed to convince us of any of them. Black cultural projects often suffered the burden of unrealistically high expectations in Britain — and many still do. Strike three.