Canadian-Jamaican director Charles Officer’s second feature looks flashy, sounds cool and – Ghost Dog-style – likes to fling out shurikens of eastern philosophy every which way. But this tale of freelance underworld fixer Akilla Brown, played with careworn wisdom by Saul Williams, doesn’t live up to its sharp tailoring and has too much faith in fatigued beats from the gangster-film locker.
Journeyman Akilla is about to retire from the illegal cannabis-distribution business in Toronto, rendered redundant by legalisation. But he finds himself on the end of a double-barrel shotgun when a depot belonging to “the Greek”, his boss, is raided by rival hoodlums. Thanks to his sang-froid, the heist runs off the rails, and Akilla steps in to stop his crew from torturing young soldier Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana) who, minutes earlier, was about to blow his brains out.
As he goes on the run, his new-found role as babysitter to Sheppard sets him to reminisce on his own entry as a youth (also played by Mpumlwana) into gangsterism in New York, inculcated by his crime lord father Clinton (Ronnie Rowe), who is full of Jamaican grit and Sun Tzu quotations. The alternation between timelines works decently enough, but the intended impact – a reflection on violence handed down the generations – is blunted by the stilted scene-writing. Especially in the early stages, it’s packed with off-the-peg tough talk (“Your homeboys took something from someone not to be fucked with”) and stock crime-flick predicaments that are indifferently executed.
Largely shot in pulsating nocturnal fluorescence and soundtracked to freeze-dried beats from Massive Attack’s 3D and rapping from Williams, Akilla’s Escape has undeniable style. And contrasting well with the stolid Williams, Mpumlwana impresses in his twin roles – notably in a standout bagman scene, one with a rare originality here, when junior Akilla comes out unexpectedly on top in a Latino cantina. But it’s all not quite enough to get Officer’s film to live up to its pretensions, which are also present in the overlong opening credits discoursing on Jamaican history and corruption; themes hinted at later but which never entirely bloom.
• Akilla’s Escape is released on 26 August in cinemas.