5 out of 10

Release Date: 1st December 2008

Director: Julian Gilbey: (Plastic / A Lonely Place To Die / Rollin With The Nines)

Cast: Ricci Harnett, Terry Stone, Craig Fairbrass, Roland Manookian, Kierston Wareing, Neil Maskell, Coralie Rose, Ian Virgo, Lara Belmont, Jason Maza, Emily Beecham, Patrick Regis with Billy Murray and Frank Harper

Writer: Will & Julian Gilbey


Review by Matt Usher

Rise_of_the_footsoldierLet’s begin with that strangely self-effacing title: the film claims to tell merely of the rise of a common-or-garden footsoldier; whether he’s rising to or from that rank is unclear. But who is our modest protagonist? It is a gentleman with the rather splendidly Wodehousian name Carlton Leach, and the film is based on his memoirs, and the tale he tells is one full of thrills and spills, but, such is the modesty of the man, one in which he himself often plays a strangely low-profile role.

This is a love story. Carlton Leach (great name – great guy) is a man buffeted by the winds of fate. Throughout the film he can react only to the dictates of his environment – which means that he grows up as a hooligan because he lives in a world of hooligans, it means that raping his wife is something she actually quite enjoys, it means that turf wars against gangsters are things that you just have to do. On the occasions when he is in a position to make choices he always makes the right choice: for example, he decides not to murder the Turkish mafia partly because (a) he probably shouldn’t admit to murder in his autobiography, (b) because he presents himself as gangster-Yoda. The other time he chooses indolence over action is when he refuses to take part in the deal which leads to the Rettendon Range Rover Murder Mystery. Leach is a wise man, a man who benefitted from that decision (a) by staying alive, and (b) by writing a book about how he had nothing to do with the Rettendon Pest Control Operation and yet somehow managed to take ownership of the story.

But who is Leach? As far as this hagiography is concerned he’s a football hooligan turned bouncer turned bouncer’s boss turned security chief turned writer with quite a dull tale to tell. A tale I told in the last sentence, yet the film takes a couple of hours and throws in all the usual Essex gangster stuff: drugs, machetes, naked prostitutes, beaten up pizza-place staff, a liberal sprinkling of the word c*** (the unimpeachable IMDB suggests 79 uses fact fans, but that seems a conservative estimate), dopey lads getting beaten up in respectable suburbia, and enough bad wiggery to delight William Shatner forever. But RISE OF THE FOOTSOLDIER is not some mere spin-off, cash-in or rip-off, it is the spiritual godfather, the progenitor of all those terrible gangster films people like Jonathan Sothcott and Paul Tanter ruthlessly foist upon us. As such it should be treated with respect.

For a start, it’s a properly made film, with actors who know what they’re doing, a script which (although of limited vocabulary) is clear, and a story which is pretty straightforward. The production values are surprisingly high (wigs excluded), and the editing is exuberant without being tiresomely frenetic (like all the other Essex Boys films). The use of music is reasonably apposite, and the pace remains brisk as opposed to the simultaneously sluggish and relentless tempi that its offspring adopt. But for all its energy and occasional imaginative touches (basically an occasional freeze-frame or montage – honestly there’s an 80s training sequence in there) the film lacks any cinematic interest. It’s a story told more through narration than through drama – the voice-over tells us something’s about to happen –it happens.

The inbuilt problem with the biopic genre is that our lives do not follow the laws of drama. So here we have isolated snapshots – a new job, a new bride, a vicious riot on the underground (a particularly well-done sequence). And then, the Life’s Mission, namely a vicious and brutal turf war with the Turkish Mafia, as Leach describes it (or a mild disagreement between some shouty drug dealers, depending on your point of view). It’s not exactly SCHINDLER’S LIST, and the story fizzles out after Leach’s best pal, Eddie, a man to whom Leach frequently professes undying love, goes mad and kills himself after being horribly tortured by evil foreigners. Leach is of course completely innocent in this matter, and his response is to take a pacifist moral high ground instead. How sensible and law-abiding the man is.

But life goes on (for our hero, if not Eddie), and soon Carlton meets Tony, and he finds the true spark of kindred spirits. But there is a shadow: just as Batman had Robin, so Tony was a ward, Craig. And Craig was a thorn in Carlton’s flesh. This love too was doomed when Tony and Craig, along with their pal Pat, had their faces removed by some very persistent gunmen one fateful night in 1995. For Tony is Tony Tucker, and we have arrived at the Main Event: the rise and fall of those pesky Rettendon Rascals. But alas Leach has nothing to actually say about the story. We see Tate, Tucker and Rolfe beat people up, then get killed. Leach is nowhere to be seen for long stretches, except to turn up every now and again and be wise whilst Tucker is stupid. So Leach takes a back seat for the Essex Boy half of the film (not literally obviously otherwise he would have had his head shot to pieces – a fate which the camera lingers lovingly over when examining the corpses of the other victims). (Indeed the film stages the murders repeatedly and in gleeful detail – one wonders how Leach felt seeing his soul-mate have his face blasted to pieces over and over again.) The effect is of someone telling you their story, then breaking off to tell us something more interesting which he happened to know about because he was in the same room some of the time.

Leach, as well as the fawning film-makers who seem to regard him as a reliable guide, is unable to say anything interesting about this sorry shower of silly-billies. The actors succeed to some extent. Wig aside, this is Terry Stone’s best attempt at Tucker: here is an actor who really knows all the expressive properties of swear-words. Craig Fairbrass puts his monolithic mien to good use, and even achieves a change of visual expression from time to time. Roland Manookian is the only actor to make anything interesting of Craig Rolfe, a dopey dopehead with unexpected reserves of casual malignance. The curse of Mickey Steele strikes Billy Murray. He’s hardly in the film and uses his posh voice – never a good thing. This is Kierston Wareing’s first of three goes at Mrs Tate (whose name changes from film to film). Although a tiny role, she plays the character as less of a damsel in distress, though really she’s only here to look pensive and attend to Tate’s phallic requirements.

But at the centre of it all (except for the final hour of the film) is Ricci Harnett as the legend that isn’t Carlton Leach. Harnett is particularly good early on (before I realised that they were in fact using a completely different actor) and grows nicely from enthusiastic yob to stoic man of granite. But then something happens – maybe he saw the script for the second half of the film – he stops, with a growling frown and furrowed forehead, as if he vaguely disapproves of everything going on, like a UKIP-supporting Daily Mail reader. It’s like he’s sulking, saying ‘this is meant to be my f***ing film you c***s, why am I stuck in the f***ing sound booth doing all the f***ing narration?’ This is indeed a film awash with highlights from Leach’s autobiography, read out by Harnett in a way that his successors (Nick Nevern especially) should have learned from. But for all Harnett’s work, as his character vanishes from view, I find that I didn’t miss him much.

In the end though, Leach glowers over this film like a fluffy kitten which has just accidentally killed a bird. He looks at us pleadingly, as if it wasn’t his fault and he only did what he did because he had to. RISE OF THE FOOTSOLDIER is similarly naïve: taken in by a boastful yet empty story, it is tedious, over-long, considerably better than all the Tanter/Sothcott/Philips/Nevern wannabes, but it lacks excitement and interest, has dull characters, and is sadly in denial as far as Leach’s true nature is concerned. But a sequel is due! Maybe there are exciting revelations awaiting us in the sequel REIGN OF THE GENERAL! (ed’s note – now retitled Rise of the Footsoldier II).



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