“If you don’t stop scum you end up working for them,”opines Inspector Taylor (played by actor Richard Dormer from Lisburn, outside Belfast) in the crackling new crime movie Hyena.
Directed by newcomer Gerard Johnson, Hyena couldn’t be accused of dodging controversial issues like police corruption, drug-running and human trafficking.Nor does it soften its physical effects, showing forced heroin injection, bodily mutilation and rape.It isn’t pretty but it is pulsating.
As the title implies Hyena reveals the law of the jungle; in this case that means the urban jungle.
Set in West London, with mostly location filming, it’s an exquisite illustration of a modern, fertile but fierce environment.
The story centres on Michael Logan (Peter Ferdinando), a corrupt but charismatic copper, and the world of moral decay in which he moves.
Up against Logan is Dormer’s Taylor, of the Met’s Professional Standards Department, a clean-cut figure fixated on snaring Logan in his net. The confrontation between the two is less a duel in the sun and more a deadly wrestle beneath the Westway.
Not that Taylor is Logan’s only adversary. As an authority who’s used to running things on his manor, Logan shares a mutual understanding with the dominant Turkish gangsters on his patch.
While on agreeable terms with local ganglords, he takes a cut from their drugs and prostitution rackets, even investing cash in their narcotics importation. But control begins to slip from Logan’s grip when a turf war sees an Albanian gang take over.
More sinister than anything even the hardest men have seen before, this gang’s violence (severed limbs, decapitated heads) creates a maelstrom that sees Logan’s command collapse.
The narrative tone intermixes naturalistic acting with some brilliant stylised set pieces.
One scene where Logan and his heavies raise hell in a swish nightclub is especially effective, with slow-motion and shadowy imagery backed up by a thumping electronic soundtrack.
Hyena is a moral notch above most London-based crime movies. Unlike, say, Matthew Vaughn’s Layer Cake (2004) or almost anything in Guy Richie’s oeuvre, it doesn’t lovingly glorify gangsters with slick stylings. Instead, like Johnathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast (2000), Hyena expertly exposes the gangland milieu and its psychotic turbulence.
The film is another score in Richard Dormer’s credit column.
After several years of steady supporting work, the 45-year-old actor has risen in profile in recent times. Among his other successes, Dormer’s status was immeasurably boosted in 2013 after playing Belfast’s maverick music man Terri Hooley in the award-winning Good Vibrations.
Of course, Dormer had won acclaim before. In 2003 he drew many plaudits for his one-man stage narrative Hurricane, a portrait of snooker player Alex Higgins.
“Dormer simply becomes Higgins,”one critic wrote. For some time his screen roles tended to be colour parts, adding texture around the main characters. But still he seemed able to uplift anything he appeared in, such as Kieron J Walsh’s honourable but uneven thriller Jump (2011).
Part of Dormer’s screen appeal is his versatility. His appearance is hard to define.
His looks are not the rugged Hollywood kind of Gabriel Byrne or Michael Fassbender, nor the delicate prettiness of Aidan Gillen or Cillian Murphy. Rather, his clean, attractive features give him an everyman persona that somehow broadens his range. This makes Dormer the most unpredictable Irish actor since Colm Meaney or even Richard Harris.
Dormer currently plays the enigmatic Dan Anderssen, sheriff of the isolated Norwegian town in Sky Altantic’s eerie drama Fortitude.
Halfway through the series and viewers are still unsure if Dan is hero or villain. Is he the evil presence that haunts the townsfolk, or the only one who can protect them? Either way, Dan constantly has his eyes focussed, his teeth gritted and his firearm to hand. “He’s a good man who’s had to do bad things,”Dormer explains.
The somewhat priggish Taylor in Hyena is a different animal to Dan Anderssen, but the conviction Dormer brings the role is the same.
His being slight of frame beside the beefy Ferdinando means the two antagonists complement each other in opposition, both physically and morally.
Among the film’s commendable features is its depiction of moral ambivalence by our supposed moral guardians. If Ferdinando’s Logan breaks all rules except that of survival, then Dormer’s Taylor bends his own principles to hunt his prey.
As a cinema watch Hyena is far from a beautiful experience but it is cinematic in its ugliness and beautifully crafted in its narrative.
Johnson’s film is sensuously powerful without resorting to sensationalism. The performances are equally terrific and terrifying, not least in the climactic scene between Dormer and Ferdinando.
Hyena is in selected cinemas from Friday, March 6; Fortitude continues on Sky Atlantic, Wednesdays 10pm