Human scavengers abound in the relentlessly grim British thriller Hyena, one of those movies in which it’s a toss-up whether the cops or the criminals are more despicable. Writer-director Gerard Johnson, making his second feature (the first, Tony, about a sad-sack serial killer, never opened in the U.S.), brings little that’s new or refreshing to the genre, but he does at least have the courage of his convictions—even plot threads that appear to be offering a thin sliver of hope for the prospect of human decency are ultimately discarded like the hacked-up body parts of one luckless character. Unlike last year’s Filth, though, Hyena doesn’t come across as if it’s reveling in its characters’ bad behavior. A few dreamy interludes aside, the film’s tone is cool, dispassionate, and matter-of-fact. All that’s missing is a reason to give a damn.
No time is wasted in establishing that our antihero, West London detective Michael Logan (Peter Ferdinando, who also played the title role in Tony), is on the take. Indeed, Logan is virtually never seen doing legitimate police work, as he’s too busy partying with the drugs he and his crew score in raids and investing money in various criminal enterprises. During one such transaction, Logan watches in horror as his Turkish contact is murdered with a machete by a pair of Albanian brothers (Orli Shuka and Gjevat Kelmendi) seeking to take over the dead man’s business. Though believably traumatized by witnessing this gruesome spectacle (refreshingly, Hyena acknowledges that even a tough guy might freak out seeing someone get butchered), Logan, ever the professional, negotiates a deal with the brothers, promising to turn a blind eye in exchange for payoffs. He becomes less sanguine, however, when he discovers that the Albanians are trafficking young women as well as drugs. On top of that, a former partner (Stephen Graham, best known as Al Capone on Boardwalk Empire) with whom Logan has an ugly history is assigned to work with him, and he’s being hounded by a dogged Internal Affairs investigator (Richard Dormer).
“I have seen the future of crime films and it screams Hyena,” reads a blurb from Nicolas Winding Refn on one of the film’s U.K. posters. His enthusiasm isn’t surprising, since Johnson borrows from him liberally: The film’s retro title card bears a marked similarity to Drive’s, and Hyena generally favors pulsing neon rather than the genre’s standard blue-gray color scheme. Johnson also did well to hire his brother, Matt Johnson, a.k.a. The The, as composer; several of the film’s violent set pieces unfold in an impressionistic electronic dreamscape, with the carnage fleetingly glimpsed and the screams and crashes drowned out by creepy ambient noise. (Those with an aversion to gore are still advised to steer clear—it’s a bloody film.) There’s a rape scene that’s unnecessarily grotesque—one can imagine Johnson rejecting actors auditioning to play the rapist with, “Sorry, you’re just not fat and hairy enough”—but that’s the sole notable misstep.
Still, it’s just hard to care about all this unvarnished sordidness. Ferdinando carefully avoids giving Logan a heart of gold, even when the detective is trying to save one young woman (Elisa Lasowski) whom the brothers have sold, but he never quite succeeds in making the character repellently fascinating in a Bad Lieutenant sort of way (pick either version). While the movie keeps tightening the noose around Logan’s neck, any interest in whether he’ll manage to escape being arrested or killed is largely academic. Even Hyena’s deliberately unresolved ending is impressive intellectually rather than viscerally, when it’s evidently striving for both. A movie doesn’t necessarily need to provide someone to root for, but it does need to provide more than a flat series of bad moral choices followed by ugly consequences. Otherwise, it risks making the viewer feel like the hyena.