Like Clockwork: Tom Hardy summons the ultraviolence in British gangster epic The Take (Amazon Prime)

Tom Hardy as Freddie in The Take
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Tom Hardy is a bit of an enigma. From his rise to fame in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s Bronson to his portrayal of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, there have been times when it’s felt like we were witnessing a legend in the making. He was also impressive in Warrior, The Revenant and Locke (the latter being a highly underrated flick, and perhaps my favorite Hardy role). Actually, his filmography is littered with damn-good movies (Mad Max, Legend, Inception, et. al). But the more I’ve seen him, the more I’ve wondered, Is Tom Hardy a great actor or simply a charming, bi-polar psychopath who convincingly plays several hyperbolic iterations of himself?

I pose this question in thinking back to when Hardy mania was at  fever-pitch, around 2014. Teasers of his new role in Peaky Blinders had me wondering if some Daniel Day-esque transformation from mere mortal to acting god was about to occur. The table was set for the next Bill the Butcher to carve his mark into cinematic infamy.

But then Blinders slogged out his mumbly, odd-for-odd’s sake character of Alfie Solomonsnot a bad role, and perhaps one that was more the writers’ fault than his own, but still a bit of an anticlimactic thud in contrast with the reckoning that was Bane. And more importantly, one that brought the realization that, well, maybe this guy is just a very interesting character actor.

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“You coulda been a contender, mate…”

That’s not a segue into saying Hardy is one-notehis dramatic range is vast. But as he’s developed his laundry list of highly entertaining roles, I’ve seen a common thread: they’re almost all iterations of a morally conflicted, maniacal he-man with a glint of unpredictable deviance flitting across his expressive eyes. Which leads me to believe that he’s either the most typecast actor of all time or, likelier, less of a transformational talent than simply one of the most brilliantly unique character actors in film. (Here’s looking at you, Michael Shannon.)

I say this all to set the stage for what is perhaps “the most Tom Hardy role” of Tom Hardy’s careerhis turn as British gangster Freddie Jackson in the four-part 2008 Sky 1 series The Take, an engrossing and depraved epic filmed right on the cusp of Hardy’s rise to household name.

Shaun Evans, Charlotte Riley, Tom Hardy and Kierston Wareing in The Take

Evans, Riley, Hardy, Wareing (L to R)

The Take opens with Freddie being released from a prison stint in 1984, right back into the anonymous slums where his life of crime began. Freddie’s story is common, Scarface-esquethe brash, fearless young hurricane who could give a fuck about the old school rules of criminal code. Not interested in “waiting in line” for his rise, he begins bashing heads, making enemies and causing overall havocall as his crime don (a steely, menacing Brian Cox) attempts to call the shots while inside prison walls.

The yin to Freddie’s maniacal yang is his cousin and only trusted confidant, Jimmy (Shaun Evans), a scrawny, posh-looking Hugh Grant stand-in who makes up for his meekness with calculating business wiles. The key players also include Jimmy’s wife, Maggie (Charlotte RileyHardy’s real-life spouse), always looking to steer Jimmy away from Freddie’s mayhem. And there’s Maggie’s older sister, Jackie (Kierston Wareing), who also happens to be Freddie’s wife. It all makes for an incestuously close crime family, and one that toes a deadly line as rivalries begin to simmer.

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Shaun Evans as Jimmy: The most menacing gangster since Hugh Grant in Mickey Blue Eyes

Encapsulating ten-plus years of Shakespearean tragedy over just four episodes, The Take has a lot of ground to cover. And to say it does so admirably would be an understatement. It’s first two episodes end on the type of multi-pronged bang that you’d expect most shows 12 episodes to deliver (or in the case of, say, The Walking Dead, more like 80 episodes). With a tight script, a breakneck pace of action, and Hardy, Wareing and Riley’s riveting manifestations of dynamically plotted characters, The Take’s well-fleshed resolution does not feel the least bit rushed.

Wareing, specifically, gives a remarkably devastating performance as the pitiable, hopelessly in love wife of a two-timing, absentee jailbird father (Hardy’s Freddie). It’s almost as if we’re witnessing the precursor to the drunken hot mess she played in Fish Tankanother bleak and superbly acted British slum portrait, released the same year.

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Kierston Wareing: Slum Goddess of England


Hardy, in turn, manages the feat of being both one of the most thoroughly despicable protagonists I can think of and also the most compelling aspect of a brilliantly acted and scripted series. His Freddie is a fast-talking, psychotic hedonist; a primal animal driven by lust, booze, violence and power. He makes Joe Pesci’s Tommy DeVito look like a good fellamorally speaking. The extent of Hardy’s dramatic rangeeven if it’s an iteration of Hardy we’ve seen multiple timesis commanding, especially when he’s at his breaking point.

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“Have ya seen me meds, Da? I believe I’ve gone in a bit mental!”

His character can pretty much be summed up in an early exchange with his boss’ flirtatious sister.

“You’re pushing your luck,” she cautions him.

“Yeh, well that’s what I’m good at,” Hardy responds through a crooked smile.

I have few knocks on The Take, although I have to mention the show’s laughable opening credits. Perhaps to draw in viewers with fireworks, perhaps just out of poor British taste, the show’s seriousness abruptly cuts to a trying-too-hard rock-riff featuring high-contrast graphics of Tom Hardy doing badass things. It’s a clear Guy Ritchie ripoff, and about as tone-deaf to the show’s gravity as re-dubbing the beginning of Schindler’s List with an Andrew WK ballad.

But all said this is a hellishly bleak and well-maneuvered gangster seriesmore Coppola than Guy Ritchieand also an early insight into one of the most compelling actors of his generation. If there’s a reason The Take only has a 7.9 on IMDb, it’s probably because it’s too depraved, and its lead too unlikeable for mainstream audiences and critics to stomach. 

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDb: 7.9

-Sam Adams

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Wild Bill on Netflix Instant: British thuggery with a pulse

Wild Bill Movie Netflix Instant
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Guy Ritchie is to modern-day British gangster cinema what Ed Sheeran is to teenage girls with cherubic hobo fetishes. When Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was released in 1998, a subgenre that had birthed such classics as Get Carter (1971) and The Long Good Friday (1980) was reanimated on a global stage.

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…a lesson the King of Cockney taught us in Get Carter.

No doubt highly influenced by Tarantino’s hyperreal stylization, Ritchie followed up his raucous debut with another cult-classic, Snatch. Since, however, his schtick has devolved into half-assed attempts like Revolver (most notable for Andre 3000 giving the worst performance by a rapper since Ice-T in Leprechaun in the Hood); the unwatchable remake of Lina Wertmüller‘s glorious sexistential 1974 film Swept Away (most notable for Madonna’s performance in the worst movie starring a pop singer this side of Gigli); and those Sherlock Holmes movies—which conjure a video game idea Michael Bay thought up while taking a shit.

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Q: What’s cooler than being cool?   A: Never acting again, Three Stacks.

That said, Ritchie deserves credit for his better “Mockney” efforts, and perhaps more so for the wave of UK crime cinema they’ve inspired. Sure, the movement has spawned its fair share of overstylized, horribly written filth that many a Brit no doubt loathe being associated with. Specifically, I’m referring to just about anything Jason Statham has ever done (full disclosure: I have lapped up every Statham movie on Netflix Instant with the guilty-pleasure-induced appetite of a middle-aged housewife with a box of Franzia and a Lifetime marathon).

But there have also been some absolutely brilliant films added to the canon. Sexy Beast (2000) is a genre-bending classic that features Ben Kingsley’s turn as one of the greatest big-screen villains of all-time. Terence Stamp killed it in the paternal revenge thriller The Limey (1999). And of course no one’s kicking Layer Cake out of bed for eating crumpets.

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Don Logan: All-around nice guy.

While Snatch—and at least six Statham-led movies—are currently on Netflix Instant, so is another fantastic, lesser-known modern British gangster flick:

Wild Bill
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There’s a storm brewing throughout Wild Bill, a film about a “nutter” who’s just come home from eight years in the pen and is reintroduced to his two slum-living boys. Our titular antihero (played by Charlie Creed-Miles, aka Billy Kimber from Peaky Blinders) is a small-time crook with a larger than life reputation.

In many ways, Bill’s disposition is much like that of Nicolas Cage’s in Joe (another film titled after—and focused mainly on the psyche of—its lead). Both men are ex-cons with unpredictable temperaments who could snap at any given moment. And as in Joe, much of Wild Bill’s tension lies in the fact that we know from the outset that Bill—at first feeble and aimless upon his release from prison—will once again go wild. The questions that drive the story are simply when, and to what consequence?

Pressure is added to these questions when Bill is unwittingly forced into a parental role he’s clearly not cut out for. Initially, he takes the responsibility as if he were Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa. He uses the free lodging that his older, mature son has provided as a haven for pot smoking, drunkenly passing out on the couch, and consorting with a kind-hearted hooker.

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“Can we fix you some sandwiches?”

Reality soon hits Bill like a swift kick in the bollocks when a street gang from his past starts making threats on his family. From here, it’s on Bill to see what extent he’ll go to in righting a heretofore unremarkable and wasted existence.

A large part of what makes Wild Bill an exceptional British gangster flick is that it draws elements from both Guy Ritchie and another British filmmaking stud, Danny Boyle. It’s got the fast-paced, street-tough humor of a Ritchie flick, but also the more real-world-savvy emotional core found in the breadth of Boyle’s work (and the comedic flair of Trainspotting). In short, unlike what Ritchie detractors—and haters of other Mockney offshoots—might argue, it’s not simply style for style’s sake.

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Familiar faces from Wild Bill ‘s motley crew.

Another similarity Wild Bill shares with both Trainspotting and those better Ritchie films is its use of a colorful ensemble cast. Director Dexter Fletcher employs a who’s who of talented B-list British crime actors. Leo Gregory and Marc Warren (both familiar from Green Street Hooligans) play Bill’s shifty nemesis and a cracked-out dad, respectively. Neil Maskell (Kill List—also on Netflix Instant, and totally worth the watch), plays one of Gregory’s cronies. Jason Flemyng (Lock, Stock, Snatch, Layer Cake) makes a brief cameo. Andy Serkis—Hollywood’s favorite CGI stand-in—sheds his Gollum and Planet of the Apes makeup to play a menacing crime boss. And Iwan Rheon provides a comedic turn as a petty crack dealer who thinks he’s a badass rasta (hard to reconcile when pitted against his role as Ramsay Snow the Castrator on Game of Thrones).

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Iwan Rheon, aka Ramsay Snow.

The only debatable setbacks in this film would be that it’s not really as much of an all-out “gangster” flick as some of the aforementioned titles, and it also leans a bit heavily on heartfelt drama (a taboo subject on this here blog) as it comes to a close. Still, there’s more than enough smashing of pint glasses, soccer hooligan head-butting and general badassery to appease those looking for a proper follow-up to Lock, Stock and Snatch. And beyond that, it’s just a bloody damn good film, spearheaded by the underused Charlie Creed-Miles’ magnificent work.

GRADE: B+/A-
IMDb: 7.2

-Sam Adams