The directorial debut of William Monahan, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Departed, London Boulevard collapses under the weight of its own ideas and the amount of talent it has to burn. A great cast and an intriguing premise are crowded out by a surplus of plot threads that don’t have space to play out, and accordingly come across as clichés. Set in a London that’s half grittily realistic and half a heightened movie space, this drama tracks Colin Farrell as an introspective gangster who’s released from prison and immediately recruited by local tough Ray Winstone, in spite of his desire to go straight. While trying to avoid getting pulled into Winstone’s organization, where his skittish friend Ben Chaplin is already working as an enforcer, Farrell is also hired to provide some security for a famous actress (Keira Knightley), who’s retreated into her Holland Park compound to escape from the paparazzi plaguing her after her marriage’s demise.
Flashier subplots involving Farrell’s unstable, alcoholic sister (Anna Friel) and his quest for revenge following the murder of a homeless friend draw attention away from the tentative, underdeveloped romance that forms between Farrell and Knightley. There’s something Drive-like about their improbable relationship, with the vulnerable Knightley (“If it wasn’t for Monica Bellucci, she’d be the most raped woman in European cinema,” as one character memorably describes her) both an object to be protected and representative of the promise of a fresh start. But with so much tying Farrell down to the life he used to lead, any hope of running away with his movie-star love seems doomed, even without the air of predetermined moodiness overshadowing the entire enterprise.
London Boulevard often comes across as a mash-up of different British genres, switching from mob saga to kitchen-sink family drama to Guy Ritchie-esque crime jaunt. (Characters are prone to lines like “It’s a nice day, if you like that sort of thing.”) David Thewlis, who walks away with the film, appears to have arrived directly from Withnail & I, playing a disreputable one-time actor who’s “resting” at Knightley’s house, and who befriends Farrell as the action escalates toward an inevitable bloody climax. With so many fine performances—Thewlis and Winstone are standouts, though Farrell is solid, and intriguing types like Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, and Ophelia Lovibond are welcome in their small roles—London Boulevard just feels like a waste, with so much promise and so little focus.