On Dec. 6, 1995, three petty British criminals who traded in drugs and stayed powerful because of the brutal ways in which they intimidated people were found murdered inside a car on a snowy road in Essex. Amazingly, those three relatively small-time crooks have become larger than life after death, giving rise to a half-dozen books and three films: "Essex Boys" (2000), "Rise of the Footsoldier" (2007), and "Bonded by Blood" (2010).
"Bonded by Blood" is a British crime drama that wasn't as bloody as I thought it would be and also wasn't as "bonded"--meaning, it didn't always hold together.
Partly, that's the result of a language barrier. The accents of the criminals are pretty thick, and they talk rapidly, which means that there could be lines of exposition that slip past you. But it's also a result of a confused focus.
Based on a best-selling 2006 memoir by Bernard O'Mahoney, the story takes place in the 1990s, with the opening scene of violence--two men entering an apartment and shooting the stuffing out of a man who knew them--serving as the entry point. The victim, Darren (Adam Deacon), narrates. Then it's a series of flashbacks and fragmented narratives, not all of which are in chronological order, which adds more difficulty. But I think the most confusing aspect was the focus and point of view. The early implication is that Darren Nicholls will be the POV character and narrator throughout, but that turns out not to be the case. For the most part, Sacha Bennett's film employs a restricted omniscient point of view. And in the early going, it looks as if the film's focus will be on Darren and two thugs he's hooked up with: Mickey Steele (Vincent Regan) and Jack Whomes (Dave Legeno). Before long, though, a second trio of thugs enters the picture, a trio that does business with this one, and the point-of-view and focus start to split. Soon we're drawing closer to Pat Tate (Tamer Hassan), Tony Tucker (Terry Stone), and Craig Rolfe (Neil Maskell), and wondering which of the two "gangs," if any, we're supposed to sympathize with, or at least understand.
As it turns out, neither. At first the two trios blur a bit, especially since neither is more violently or insidiously portrayed than the other. Then, because we don't get enough depth on either of them, it becomes an exercise in not caring. Let them shoot each other. At one point in the narration we almost get an admission by Bennett and fellow writer Graeme Muir that they've given us a shallow plot and two-dimensional characters because Darren suddenly says that the one thing he couldn't wrap his mind around was that these guys they were trying to kill (who are also plotting to kill them) were fathers. The next thing you know, we're getting perfunctory reminders that these guys have children. Equally shallow is the treatment that the eventual courtroom scene gets. Blink, and you'll miss it. Then it's a quick jump to "two years later" at a witness protection safe house, where the story began. It's not just the editing, it's the scenic construction that could stand some work. You find yourself with too many unanswered questions.
If you were looking for an in-depth treatment that would tell you all you need to know about the Essex gang and the aftermath of that day in December, you'll be disappointed. When we get a postscript telling us that O'Mahoney has spent the better part of 14 years trying to get his former gang-mates out of prison because he believes they're innocent, that's only the tip of the iceberg that remains unexplored in "Bonded by Blood." There's no mention of the evidence that convicted them, and nothing really about alibis that would raise any doubt. The film treats one trio like killers, and then just throws doubt at you before the end credits roll. It hardly seems fair.
Yet, "Bonded by Blood" is well acted, with Tamer Hassan and Vincent Regan in particular offering standout performances. While the whole may be disappointing, the parts are certainly interesting to watch. The scenes that make sense also have a kind of raw power to them. The prison sequences, for example, are surprisingly understated and, as a result, have new things to "say" visually. There's an "In Cold Blood" feel to the third act structure, too, that works well as we cut from trio to trio and back again, watching these two forces on a collision course. In the end, though, I wanted more, as I'm sure most viewers will. It's one of those films that just seems to have so much untapped potential.
"Bonded By Blood" is distributed by Revolver Entertainment and presented in 2.35:1 widescreen, "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions. "Bonded" has a low-budget look to it, and so I checked imdb.com, which reports it at a mere $4 million. Single lighting sources, hand-held cameras, minimal boom microphones, etc., lead you to that conclusion. But the subject matter is such that it all feels compatible rather than disjointed or intrusive. "Bonded" is a color film, but I couldn't help imagining what it would look like in black-and-white, it so reminded me of the Capote film in spots. Colors and skin-tones are natural looking, though there's a dark and steely look to the overall palette. Grain is fairly minimal for a standard-def release.
The audio is pretty standard--an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround that sleeps through the dialogue and wakes up a bit when the bullets start to fly as the gang discovers automatic weapons.
There's a surprising amount of extras here, with a commentary track (in 2.0) by director Bennett and his producers, Terry Stone and Daniel Toland, definitely worth a listen. "An Interview with Bernard O'Mahoney" (9 min.) finds him talking about how he met Tony Tucker, what a good guy Pat Tate was, and, of course, his book. "Cast/Crew Interviews" (12.5 min.) feature the principles with some pretty standard responses, and "The C Word" is under a minute of cast and crew asked to repeat a word that, like the F word, comes up a lot during the course of the film. Kind of juvenile, if you ask me. Then, in "Welcome to Tony Tucker's Mansion" (1:45 min.), Stone in character gives a hand-held camera tour of his "crib, laughing most of the time, obviously uncomfortable doing a DVD feature. Rounding out the bonus features is footage of the premiere and after-party (2 min.), and B-roll footage (22 min.) that shows the cameramen at work as well.
I wished that I saw more of these thugs' worlds--their daily lives as criminals--before being taken into the drama of their collective low points. As crime dramas go, "Bonded by Blood" is certainly worth watching, but the whole just isn't nearly as effective as some of the parts.