Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

The British crime thriller doesn't tend to do talkative, or character-based (honourable exception: The Long Good Friday). Guy Ritchie's ouevre may have the odd cherishable line or inspired riff but the main question is always "what's going to happen next?" rather than "what's he going to come out with next?". Even classics like Get Carter kept their dialogue simple, hard-boiled and noir-ish. So it's refreshing to see a British film that aims for the freewheeling, semi-improvised feel of Scorsese's Mean Streets. And if this feature debut by TV veteran Love (Waking the Dead) doesn't scale those giddy heights, it at least offers something more than the genre's twin extremes of grimly earnest 'stories from da street' or 'Mockney loveable rogue' capers.

Sugarhouse opens with City suit Tom (Mackintosh) taking a tube ride far from his comfort zone for a cafe rendezvous with 'D' (Walters, formerly Asher Do from So Solid Crew), a hyperactive wide boy who has a piece of merchandise for which Tom is willing to pay top dollar. The cafe owner, recognising 'D' as trouble, throws them both out and Tom finds himself being led back to 'D's gaff on Sugarhouse Lane, the council estate from hell. Throughout all this 'D' keeps up a motormouth running commentary, alternately wheedling small change from Tom to buy his first drink of the day, quizzing him as to why he wants to make the deal, then trying to bully more money out of him. These talky extended scenes betray the story's origins as a stage play but intriguingly contrast 'D's self-aggrandising self-delusion with Tom's unnatural calm (at one point he patiently explains the difference between a residual and a down-payment) and apparent indifference to being led full fathoms five out of his depth.

Copy picture

But then the film remembers it has a story to tell. It soon becomes clear that the merchandise in question is a gun, which 'D' has stolen from the estate's number one drugs baron, Hoodwink. This is, of course, a man who makes Begbie from Trainspotting look like Brian Sewell and Serkis's performance, while scarily entertaining, is not one of subtly-shaded nuance. His opening appearance, padding down the corridor of his flat stark naked (except for a parlour's worth of tattoos) to ritually shave his head then plunge his face into a sink full of ice-cold water with a cathartic scream, sets the tone. His bull-necked, Buddhist-chanting, Ulster-accented fruit loop dominates the film from here on in - which means, alas, that it too ends up seriously unbalanced. As soon as he realises the gun's missing he's off on a machete-wielding, wall-punching rampage, despite his pregnant girlfriend's exhortations to "find your focus". And what could have been an intriguing two-hander about a collision (the original title of Leyton's play) between two characters with entirely different backgrounds and personalities becomes a sub-Shallow Grave 'nightmare journey'; thum-thump music in the background, swearing and smashed heads very much in the foreground.

Sugarhouse also suffers from a bad case of implausibility. Hoodwink bursts in on 'D' just as Tom is trying to grab the gun from him. Hearing their muffled grunts, then seeing them rolling around on the floor, Hoodwink surmises that 'D' has taken to rent-boying to supplement his income. Appalled by such 'gayboy' activity (and at not getting a cut of the proceeds) he neglects the trouser area when body-searching 'D' for the gun, and so fails to find it.'D' tries to shift the blame onto a trio of mutual friend stoners and, when Hoodwink storms off to find them, tries to persuade Tom to get out while the getting's good. Further complications ensue, and what should have been a tight, tense little tale gets stretched far beyond its natural boundaries. Eventually Hoodwink, realising he's been fooled, returns to confront 'D', and Tom, refusing to leave, resolves to help 'D' break loose form his surroundings. The closing scenes build up a fair head of steam, but this is again dissipated by a talky, stagy (and not entirely unpredictable) finale.

It's a shame, as Love's direction in the quieter moments vividly conjures up a world of faceless, graffiti-ed tower blocks where a little girl sitting on a park bench all day while her mum entertains 'clients' symbolises the disjointed emptiness of all the characters' lives. Mackintosh is as versatile as ever, switching from bewildered schmo to wage-slave-gone-mad and reluctant hero at the drop of a hat, while Walters builds on his impressive debut in Bullet Boy. Meanwhile, the script makes some genuine attempts to move beyond the confines of the genre. The scene where 'D' finally finds out why Tom wants the gun reveals how much they really have in common. And all three principal characters are actual, potential or surrogate fathers. A few more touches like that, and a closer focus on the good yarn at the film's heart, could have made Sugarhouse something really special. But too much shouting and running around blunts its impact, ensuring that (like 'D's big deal) it remains a missed opportunity.

Reviewed on: 04 Jul 2007
Share this with others on...
A white collar worker meets a petty crook to buy some illegal merchandise, which happens to have been stolen from the neighbourhood psycho.
Amazon link

Director: Gary Love

Writer: Dominic Leyton

Starring: Steven Mackintosh, Ashley Walters, Andy Serkis, Tolga Safer, Teddy Nygh, Adam Deacon, Tracey Whitwell

Year: 2007

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


EIFF 2007

Search database:

Related Articles:

Shooting Sugarhouse

If you like this, try:

Shallow Grave