Citizen Gangster - SideReel Review
Arriving on movie screens at a time when the desperation of its real-life protagonist mirrors that of many struggling families, writer/director Nathan Morlando’s biographical crime drama Citizen Gangster tells the tale of Canadian bank robber Edwin Boyd, whose easy charisma and knack for inventive jailbreaks made him something of a prototype criminal celebrity in the mid-20th century.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada: 1949. World War II veteran Edwin Boyd (Scott Speedman) is working as a bus driver to support his wife Doreen (Kelly Reilly) and their two small children when he decides to walk away from his paying job and try his luck as an actor. Handsome, talented, and eager to succeed, Edwin languishes when his dreams fail to materialize, and his former-policeman father Glover (Brian Cox) looks on in disappointment. With the prospect of foreclosure looming over his head and his kitchen cabinets empty, Edwin realizes that if he doesn’t act fast his family could be living on the streets. Desperate, he robs a bank with a gun he brought back from the war. Surprisingly, his plan succeeds and Edwin manages to avoid capture by disguising himself with his wife’s makeup. Before long, the elusive bandit is making headlines all across the city, but when his luck runs out, Edwin ends up behind bars. It’s there that Boyd meets Lenny Jackson (Kevin Durand), Willie "The Clown" Jackson (Brendan Fletcher), and Val Kozak (Joseph Cross). Together, the foursome stages a daring escape, and then promptly resumes their criminal activities, soon becoming the most notorious bank robbers in the country. Meanwhile, Edwin’s marriage has started to dissolve, and a romantic rift within the ranks of the crew provides police Detective Rhys (William Mapother) with precisely the information he needs to capture the Boyd Gang when they least expect it.
For a feature directorial debut, Citizen Gangster is an impressive piece of work. In addition to penning a smooth-flowing screenplay, writer/director Morlando does a commendable job of capturing great period detail on a modest budget, and coaxing strong, convincing performances from a talented cast. The main problem with Citizen Gangster is that while it does tell a compelling true-life story that could easily resonate with contemporary audiences, it breaks absolutely no new ground cinematically. It also lacks a sense of urgency that could make the familiar plot feel fresh and exciting. The one place Morlando does make a compelling stylistic choice, however, is in the soundtrack; by using contemporary blues rock as a musical backdrop, he gives the movie a stylized, distinctive tone that distorts yet heightens the reality of the story.
Filmmakers just seem naturally drawn to folk-hero criminals and from Jacques Mesrine (whose story bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Boyd’s) to Charles Bronson (aka Michael Peterson), Ned Kelly and John Dillinger, their stories have been told on the silver screen practically since the birth of celluloid. In recent decades, it’s become fashionable for filmmakers to explore the celebritization of criminals, a topic that Citizen Gangster merely breezes over in favor of focusing on the cold, hard facts. As a result, without a clear angle (Arthur Penn pushing the boundaries of onscreen violence in Bonnie and Clyde or Oliver Stone exploring the link between the media and violence in Natural Born Killers, for example), Citizen Gangster comes off as little more than a somewhat dry, paint-by-numbers account of a complex man who compromised his integrity as a veteran and a father in the name of providing for his destitute family. By focusing strictly on the details of Edwin Boyd’s criminal exploits rather than the motivating factors that compelled him to become an outlaw, Morlando misses a prime opportunity to paint a moving portrait of desperation and internal conflict.
Judging Citizen Gangster on its own terms, rather than what the film could have been, Morlando definitely gets points for being a competent filmmaker capable of executing a technically challenging vision on a tight budget. It’s only when we start to look beneath the surface to the criminal who confounded authorizes and -- at least for a brief while -- embodied the spirit of the romantic outlaw that we’re really left wanting more.