Tuesday, November 4, 2008


Just because Vinnie Jones appears in a movie is no reason to watch it. If you've seen the former British soccer star in "The Condemned," "Played," and "Number One Girl," you know that his cinematic track record isn't consistent. Yes, he's made good movies, such as "Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels," "Swordfish," and "Snatch," but too many of his films are best for rainy days when you have nothing else to eyeball. It is like they want Vinnie Jones for his compelling presence, but the films lack the dramatic firepower of Vinnie Jones' persona. Happily, while it isn't top-drawer, "Johnny Was" (**1/2 out of ****) is an above-average opus with a polished look, and persuasive performances. It's worth watching at least once, especially if you are a Vinnie Jones fan.

Freshman helmer Mark Hammond manages to keep things moving at a fast pace in this Irish-produced, crime thriller about a group of oddball thugs that circumstances bring together in a London flat. Hammond's fellow Irishman Brendan Foley penned this slightly better-than-average yarn about a former Irish-Republican Army bomber Johnny Doyle (Vinnie Jones) trying to lay low for the last five years despite his unusual, obstreperous neighbors. Unfortunately, Doyle has chosen the worse safe place to conceal himself. He lives beneath a noisy, pirate radio station run by a Rastafarian disc jockey named Ras (former boxer Lennox Lewis) and above a well-dressed but ruthless Jamaican drug dealer Julius (Eriq La Salle of NBC's "E.R.") with a beautiful junkie girlfriend Rita (Samantha Mumba of "The Time Machine" remake) who was briefly once a nurse. During his illegal broadcasts, Ras condemns the bondage that narcotics holds his people in, while he puffs on his marihuana. Meanwhile, Doyle suffers from nightmares about his last terrorist bombing. The memory of his unsuccessful effort to save the life of an innocent female painter haunts him and drives him into hiding.

Were these complications not enough, our quasi-hero of sorts finds himself up to his neck in problems when his sadistic mentor Flynn (Patrick Bergin of "Sleeping with the Enemy") and Flynn's latest protégé Michael (Laurence Kinlan of "Ned Kelly") show up on his doorstep after having escaped from Brixton Prison with the cops searching everywhere for him. Flynn is an old-school IRA terrorist who considers innocent bystanders suffering from his bombings as little more than "collateral damage." During the escape, Michael injured his ankle so he spends a lot of time in bed in pain with nurse Rita attending to him. Of course, the jealous Jamaican is none too pleased with this relationship, but Johnny has enough nerve and muscle to keep the lethal drug dealer in line.

Just when things appear to be spiraling down for the worse, Flynn makes a deal with Julius to eliminate the latter's competition by blowing them up and then becoming Julius' fifty-fifty partner. Flynn needs money and guns so that he can leave London. Julius buys into Flynn's offer because Flynn plans to knock off the first of Julius' competitors for free. Meanwhile, Julius forces Johnny—because of his experience working for an apothecary—to cut his drugs. Flynn winds up cutting the drugs and he displays his particular brand of cruelty in the amounts that he cuts.

Eventually, everything is settled in a blaze of gunfire and explosions with what appears to be the entire equivalent of the London Swat teams surrounding hero and villain at a trail station. Just to keep you on your toes, the ending comes with a little surprise of its own. Mind you, there are some other surprises in "Johnny Was," and we even learn during a final fist-smashing fight between Flynn and Doyle what the significance of the title "Johnny Was" means.

Foley's screenplay suffers at times from clichés and stereotypes. For example, Johnny amounts to another one of those tortured heroes who wants to walk the straight and narrow, but he finds himself in unable to because of his old friends and unruly neighbors. Eventually, Johnny gets his wish, but outcome seems reminiscent of those gangsters that changed their stripes at the end of a 1930s movie. Johnny comes off as a fairly sympathetic hero. However, there is nothing sympathetic about either Patrick Bergin's Flynn or Eriq La Salle's vicious drug dealer. Bergin and La Salle deliver excellent, hard case performances, especially La Salle who plays a character that is 180 degrees different than his doctor in "E.R."

"Johnny Was" qualifies as strictly minor league stuff, done with some assurance by Hammond, especially the gunfights, and featuring all-around solid performances by a convincing cast. You won't feel bad about watching this Vinnie Jones movie.

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