“Yardie” opens in 1973, during a running gun battle between rival gangs in the streets of Kingston, Jamaica. In the crossfire, a little girl is killed, leading to an attempt at reconciliation that causes further collateral damage, spawning an escalating cycle of revenge and criminality that — despite the efforts of a young man to walk the righteous path — finally resolves itself in a kind of bloody, if imperfect redemption.
It’s easy to see the appeal of the source material: a 1992 pulp bestseller by Jamaican-born British author Victor Headley about a Jamaican drug courier who gets caught up in a spiral of retaliation that, in its early pages, evokes memories of the classic 1972 cult film “The Harder They Come.” There’s plenty of meat in this story for Idris Elba, the actor making his directorial debut here, to sink his teeth into, especially when the action of “Yardie” shifts, in 1983, from Jamaica to the London of Elba’s youth.
But there’s also not a whole lot to this story beyond the story.
It’s all kiss-kiss, bang-bang and backstabbing, with a twist that, while effective, leads to a denouement of questionable — and not entirely satisfying — moral reckoning. In some ways, “Yardie” plays out like a film noir, but with a strangely sweet ending, and without that genre’s deliciously bitter aftertaste.
That said, “Yardie” spins out an interesting enough yarn.
Centering on a character known as D, for Dennis, the film picks up the thread in the Trenchtown neighborhood , where the boy (played by Antwayne Eccleston) has been shaped by the murder of his older brother (Everaldo Creary), a reggae DJ who had been attempting to defuse the gang wars of their city through the healing power of music. “Yardie” — whose title, in Britain, is slang for a Jamaican-born hood — then jumps several years later, when an older D (Aml Ameen) has become a father with his childhood sweetheart, Yvonne. Unfortunately, D’s ties to the Jamaican gang leader who took the boy in after his brother’s death force a separation: To escape the violence, Yvonne (Shantol Jackson) moves to London with their daughter, leaving D behind.
But when D’s mentor (Sheldon Shepherd) sends him to London to deliver a kilo of cocaine, the young man decides to settle there, moving in with Yvonne and taking up the drug trade for himself. Things get complicated when D runs into the man he holds responsible for his brother’s murder. D is, like so many other movie antiheroes, consumed by thoughts of retaliation.
In a broad sense, little of this story is especially new, and not just because of “The Harder They Come,” whose patterns of transgression and hubris echo here. “Yardie” also follows in the footsteps of numerous other crimes dramas, where the theme of corrupted innocence is tried and true.
What sets Elba’s movie apart is the distinctive world he creates, in the rhythm of the music, in the raw, gritty poetry of the language, and in the powerful mythology it mines. It’s a world in which D is haunted, quite literally, by his brother’s ghost, or “duppy,” in Jamaican slang. In that sense, “Yardie” also resembles Shakespeare’s tragedy of “Hamlet.” The only difference is that here, the restless apparition who haunts the young protagonist is one who urges forgiveness and healing, not more bloodshed.
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema and the AFI Silver. Contains violence, obscenity, drugs and sex. In heavily accented English and Jamaican Patois with subtitles. 101 minutes.