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Photograph by Keith Hamshere

The Wages of Coke: Jonathan Rhys Meyers' Davey pays a terrible price for his sins in Mike Hodges' modern noir.

London After Dark

Small-time hoods haunt a guarded city in 'I'll Sleep When I'm Dead'

By Richard von Busack

AS ALWAYS in Mike Hodges' gangster movies, in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, the city is the real star. London, dressed up and adorned with posh wine bars, doesn't fool this 72-year-old director, who understands the city as the prowling grounds for 1,000 years' worth of throat cutters and leg breakers.

Several decades ago, Hodges made his mark directing the Michael Caine gangster film Get Carter. (Incidentally, his Beat the Devil-ish film Pulp is less well known but may be a better movie.) After an ellipsis of more than 25 years, Hodges directed Croupier, hooking a new audience with the story of chic gangsters and the Mayfair slummers who have a thing for them.

So what goes wrong in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead? So much that it's better to ask what went right. London is there—all brick walls and security gates, with bad dogs guarding the yards of rich bastards; puddles of rain and urine, gaudy colored floodlights illuminating the fronts of uninviting nightclubs; swine acting like aristocrats, and the other way around.

Hodges' craft shows at its best in a medium shot toward the beginning, when Davey (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a very, very small-time coke seller, is jumped and hustled into an alley to meet a fate worse than death at the hands (or rather, the penis) of Malcolm McDowell's villain Boad. Neither the jumping of Davey nor the subsequent rape ever makes a hell of a lot of sense. McDowell's explanation for the outrage deserves its own alcove in the Underwriting Hall of Fame.

But Hodges stages the scene well, for what it's worth. The way Davey is hauled away is a sturdy, atmospheric piece of film noir. The kid is coming home in the pre-dawn from shagging a blonde fashion model who calls herself "Sheridan." Thugs are waiting in a diagonal alley. As Davies is snatched into the depths, a water truck clanks by, its roar drowning out his muffled screams.

Meanwhile, out of town, Davey's brother, Will (Clive Owen), is living in his van and "looking like a fucking pikey [Gypsy]," according to observers. Once he was Brixton's most feared thug, but that was before he suffered a breakdown and gave it all up for the nature-boy life. After witnessing an incident of violence, Will leaves the trees and heads back to London just in time to bury his brother. Through investigations, he learns the sordid details and decides to go after the culprits.

Charlotte Rampling shows up, doing the Dietrich thing as a bruised, ageless woman who keeps her new material success wrapped around her to ward off pain. I couldn't make out whether Rampling was meant to be Will's mother or lover. The writing in her scenes is particularly cryptic, with the idea of abandonment on both sides leaving so much unsaid; neither touches the other, and they talk to each other as if they were ghosts.

Trevor Preston's script contains the requisite amount of juicy threats. But it's clear that this is a gangster-movie watcher's idea of how gangsters talk to one another; we hear no bracing new slang. We mark time until the moment we've been waiting for, when Will is shorn of his horrible whiskers, sheds his horrible flannel shirt and starts riding around in his Jaguar like the kind of smooth killer we trashy movie lovers all admire.

The weirdest part of this weird film is the way Davey's ordeal is explained; a rape crisis counselor comes in and tells us what he may have experienced, droning on about feelings of shame, despair, denial. It's very liberal of Hodges to include all this information. But the inner Cockney reject that this movie tries to cultivate shouts, "What the fuck is this, Dr. Phil?"

Let's put it a gentler way: Wouldn't these hard cases already understand what purposes of control and intimidation rape serves? Wouldn't they have learned that bitter lesson inside the prisons where knuckleheads like these had probably been incarcerated at one point or another? Don't they watch any movies? One suspects this isn't quite an sympathetic explanation of the trauma of male rape so much as a movie looking for something especially gross to dress up its clichés.

A word on Owen. When his face is cleared of its underbrush (when the barber's apron whips over his head, it's like a statue being unveiled), the sight is startling; the jug ears and the firm chin and the cruel, impassive face—a little recognition switch gets tripped, and for a millisecond you think, oh, Sean Connery. The world probably doesn't need more Bond movies, but no one else today is as right for the role as Owen.

That said, Owen hasn't found his Terence Young yet—I mean, the director of Dr. No, who reportedly put the polish on Connery when he was rough, stolid, slightly wooden and took himself far too seriously.

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead (R; 102 min.), directed by Mike Hodges, written by Trevor Preston photographed by Michael Garfath and starring Clive Owen, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Charlotte Rampling, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the July 7-13, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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