The gangster movie is a genre with a long and distinguished history. From “The Public Enemy” to “The Godfather” to “Infernal Affairs” to “Black Mass,” the exploits of gangsters around the world have delighted audiences and encouraged filmmakers to produce works that are familiar yet innovative. The British gangster film includes some prominent and memorable examples: “The Long Good Friday,” “Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Layer Cake” all demonstrate that the United Kingdom, and especially London, lends itself well to explorations of power, loyalty, greed and a sense of place through stories that feature ambitious and violent people.
Nemesis, an independent British film by director James Crow and writers Adam Stephen Kelly and Jonathan Sothcott, includes many standard tropes of the genre.
Ageing patriarch, John Morgan (Billy Murray, “Vengeance”) — check. Glamorous moll/wife, Sadie (Jeanine Nerissa Sothcott, “The Exorcism of Karen Walker”) — check. John’s loyal lieutenant, Eddie (Danny Bear) — check. John is a loving family man — check. The family is largely innocent, especially Daddy’s little girl Kate (Ambra Moore, “Vengeance”), who is not as little as she seems — check. A frayed relationship between John and his business partners — check. Complicated sibling relationship between John and his brother Richard (Frank Harper, “Screwed”) — check. An obsessive, washing-up cop, Frank Conway (Nick Moran, “Don’t Knock Twice”) with a score to settle — check. London a shining metropolis that holds all form of scum and villainy (Mos Eisley has nothing on cockney geezers) — check. Ruthless violence — in theory. Coherent narrative that uses the annals of organized crime to explore human nature — not so much. Searing insight into humanity’s inhumanity — got lost a while ago. Enveloping visuals that create an immersive sense of place — hardly. Entertainment value — dead on arrival.
It is perversely fascinating that the interesting potential of Nemesis is so utterly squandered. John Morgan is a London kingpin in organized crime, complete with glamorous wife Sadie and 20-something daughter Kate. A brief visit to London leads to an ugly encounter with obsessed alcoholic copper Frank Conway and a threatening one with bigger gangland boss Damien Osborne (Bruce Payne, “London Unplugged”). There’s a tense, but productive, meeting with brother Richard, and a nasty bit of business to take care of that involves some torture and immolation. All this leads up to a family dinner, which is actually the point of the film. The family dinner and its aftermath make much of the first and second acts redundant, as the wider context adds little to the narrative thrust. Thrust is a generous term, as despite running to only 88 minutes, Nemesis is painfully slow and groan-inducingly incompetent. A pre-title monochrome sequence of a young girl running along a beach gives way to the titles against an animated backdrop of thorny vines, indicating that one can become enmeshed in dangerous strands. Okay, there’s potential. Yet Sothcott, Kelly and Crow complicate this set-up with various elements that go nowhere except dead ends and contradictions. Kate is obsessed with Instagram, because reasons. She also has a girlfriend, Zoe (Lucy Aarden, “South of the River”), because the film wants to appear progressive, or possibly to give the filmmakers an excuse to have two naked women kiss. Suggestions of being woke are further undermined with some gratuitous shots of Sadie walking around with her breasts exposed. Frank gets rebuked by his superior and finds a conveniently empty pub where bartender Billy (Ricky Grover, “SuperBob”) offers sage advice, indeed so sage that the viewer is left wondering where the fuck this guy came from. John considers retirement, again because reasons, but the third act of the film makes this consideration, indeed most of what preceded the third act, irrelevant.
The third act makes up the second half of the film, and revolves around a home invasion. This sequence echoes more impressive works such as “You’re Next,” “Feedback” and “Kill List,” as well as the recent “By Night’s End,” and suggests that the film might have worked better if the home invasion had been the entire plot. A few people, trapped together in a confined space, confronting mortal peril as well as personal recriminations has almost in-built tension. Unfortunately, tension and interest have long departed by the time we get to this section, because Nemesis is so drawn out, the dialogue so expository, the performances so flat and the visual style so stilted, that you might well be checking the time display to see how much of this drivel is left. Unbalanced framing, jarring edits as well as a lack of coherent choreography during what are technically action sequences betray the cheapness of the film, as does the most boring Mexican standoff you are likely to see. Themes around family and past sins are lumped into the dialogue rather than being actually explored, as the film commits the cardinal sin of telling rather than showing. Despite some blood, the violence is unconvincing, to such an extent that it’s impressive one “dead” performer doesn’t blink once his character has been killed. Meanwhile, references to wider criminal activities are skipped over in favor of long speeches and hopeless negotiations that are quite literally filling time that could be more productively filled with killing people. What is this all about? When will it finish? Will we care? The answers are not much, not soon enough and no. Nemesis could have been a fun, nasty gangster flick. Instead, it’s an intensely stupid and annoying collection of clichéd characters, creakingly shoehorned themes and disparate narrative threads that blunder together into a groan-inducing mess that lacks tension, coherence or the ability to hold the viewer’s engagement. Avoid.