Love, Honour and Obey

(Dominic Anciano & Ray Burdis, UK, 2000)


Love, Honour and Obey strains to be a hip in a hundred different ways at once.

Like many contemporary films geared to the niche market for independent cinema, its highest ambition is to be blackly funny. This, in essence, means portraying murder and extravagant injury in a flip, ironic, mock-glamourising way.

Part of a much-touted cycle of British gangster films, Love, Honour and Obey takes an aspect of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990) – the comedy of criminals doing everyday, daggy things between bouts of gut-churning violence – and stretches the concept well past breaking point.

The team of Dominic Anciano and Ray Burdis (Final Cut, 1998) write, produce, direct and act. Proceedings have a determinedly amateurish, mucking-about air, despite the presence of luminaries including Jude Law, Jonny Lee Miller, Sadie Frost, Sean Pertwee and Ray Winstone. The fact that all the actors use their own first names is a gag that never loses its odd, maddening alienation-effect.

As in Goodfellas, the story is driven and narrated by a young lad, Jonny (Miller), who pines to be a well-dressed, feared and respected gangster. Jonny takes the lifestyle, and its money-making possibilities, rather more seriously than his mentors. Ray (Winstone) is a tough mob boss when the occasion calls for it, but mostly he looks forward to the kitschy karaoke nights in which all his underlings must perform syrupy, old pop hits. This ongoing spectacle of criminals crooning feels like it takes up half the film.

Characters bumble around with their various, homely problems, including Burdis' sexual dysfunction, and Ray's jealousy over his girlfriend Sadie's role on a popular TV soap opera. Their reaction to daily incidents of mild danger is either callow amusement (especially over the endless wounds inflicted on the hapless 'Fat Alan' Fordham) or irritation that their low-intensity routines have been interrupted.

It is Jonny's ambition to behave more like a Hollywood movie gangster that eventually precipitates a war between Ray's motley crew and the corresponding band gathered around Sean (Pertwee). As the level of violence increases, so does the degree of contrast between this rough stuff and the whimsical preparations for Ray and Sadie's wedding.

No opportunity for eccentricity has been passed up in the making of this film. Scenes have a skittish rhythm, each short unit of action ending with a quick fade to black. Jonny delivers much of his narration to the camera, dressed in a clown costume. The music selection veers from Edvard Grieg to Noel Gallagher, via karaoke versions of Elvis and Jimmy Cliff.

Like James Toback's Black and White (2000), Love, Honour and Obey is based largely on group improvisations oriented around pre-set narrative moves and comic punch-lines. This turns out to be the most attractive and successful part of the Anciano-Burdis trademark style. Swirls of mutual incomprehension, misunderstanding and evasion in the improvised dialogues provide some infectious, well-timed moments of mirth.

These fine grain moments of behavioural humour are also just about the only thing to truly remind us that this is a British film – as opposed to a geographically displaced, low budget imitation of Tarantino and Scorsese. Love, Honour and Obey has flashes of originality and energy, but it is mainly a tiresome exercise in the sort of blood-soaked, disquieting comedy perfected by TV's The Sopranos.

MORE quirky gangsters: Gettin' Square

© Adrian Martin October 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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