From hip-hop star to soul crooner by way of acting stints in Harry Brown and Adulthood, Plan B's Ben Drew has shown a keen knack for artistic reinvention since breaking through with his 2006 debut album Who Needs Actions When You Got Words. Now, Drew has turned his hand to directing with low-budget gang drama iLL Manors.
Those who've seen his 'iLL Manors' music video will have a fair idea of what to expect - the movie is raw, hard-hitting and brimming with anger. In the wake of last summer's UK riots, it couldn't be more timely.
Part street musical, part Crash-style character ensemble, it weaves together six different stories about pimps, heavies, drug dealers, addicts, prostitutes and illegal aliens scrambling to survive on the streets of East London. The film's exploration of the underclass at times gives it the feel of a British Wire as Drew strives to make a film more ambitious than the tedious stream of Danny Dyer gangster offerings.
It's no more tragic or hard-hitting than in the character of Jake (Ryan De La Cruz), a young boy who finds himself drawn into gang life by Nick Sagar's Marcel.
Riz Ahmed provides the film's standout performance as Aaron, the put-upon sidekick to thug Ed (Ed Skrein). When immigrant Katya (Natalie Press) leaves her baby on a train to save him from the Russian mob, Aaron finds himself lumbered with the infant. It provides some moments of humour in an otherwise grim two hours, although the child eventually finds himself a key part of the film's building-in-flames climax.
By this stage, iLL Manors is just about out of storytelling steam and budget - the incendiary finale is robbed by some cheap set design and wonky visual effects.
Despite obvious cash restraints, Drew is able to make his presence felt through the tale (he's the first person you hear and last you see), guiding the viewer through the dangerous urban landscape with some inventive directing tricks. There's tilt-shift photography, fast-paced montages and striking editing techniques such as a cut from the barrel of a gun to a train roaring along the overground.
Dexter Fletcher's London-set crime drama Wild Bill (a name ironically used by a character in iLL Manors) managed to bring a freshness to the London crime film earlier this year, but Drew too often relies on the tried-and-tested shock tactics of the genre. He's a filmmaker of clear talent and potential, but one still very rough around the edges.