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On paper, comparisons could be drawn between Broken Law and Cardboard Gangsters. The films both feature crime, unsavoury types and a bunch of the same cast members. It’s to debut writer-director Paddy Slattery’s great credit though that from its opening moments, Broken Law feels like a different beast. With its unglamorous cops and robbers, moral mazes and twisty thriller plot, it’s more akin to Scandi Noir but transplanted into Dublin.
The film opens with Joe (Graham Earley) being released from prison. He’s picked up by his shady mates Wallace and Pete (John Connors and Ryan Lincoln). While at first Joe wants to stay on the straight and narrow, it isn’t long before he’s sculling cans and snorting lines and Wallace is talking him into being part of a robbery he’s planning.
Joe is the black sheep of his family. His policeman father died in the line of duty. Meanwhile, his brother David (Tristian Heanue) is an upstanding Garda. We see evidence of this early on when he refuses a large bribe by a driver he pulls over. Despite his dedication to his job, however, he’s barely able to afford his flat. This is made even more difficult by his landlord raising the rent.
These plotlines converge when David goes to his credit union to apply for a loan, the same place his brother and co are robbing. In the chaos, Joe takes off on foot with a bag full of cash before being cornered by David in an alleyway. Will the cop turn in his estranged brother and the stolen loot? Or will he keep his sibling safe and pocket the ill-gotten gains for himself?
It would be a very short movie if the former were to happen. Following this initial dilemma, the film becomes about a decent cop taking a walk on the wild side, evoking similarly plotted chilly potboilers like Insomnia or Netflix series Borderliner. Heanue is excellent in the lead role. He begins the drama as a stern almost statuesque figure of authority. This is before becoming increasingly frazzled as his character crosses more ethical lines – driven by either desperation, a form of PTSD following the robbery or maybe some hereditary inheritance from his father who may not have been the angel he thought.
According to Slattery, Broken Law was made on a shoe-string, although viewers wouldn’t know based on the finished project. The writer-director transcends his low budget perimeters thanks to a script where much of the tension is character driven rather than action focused, an effective use of North Dublin locations and a well-chosen supporting cast blending established names (Gary Lydon as David’s superintendent) and fresh faces.
In terms of the latter, John Connors and Ryan Lincoln make for spectacularly entertaining antagonists, the two constantly bickering at each other like a married couple as they begin to piece together that David has their stolen money. That said, unlike a lot of bad Irish cinema, the comedy here never detracts from the tension. Connors’ genial mannerisms and off-kilter tangents are chilling when he’s delivering threats. In other sections of the film, meanwhile, comedy is used to deepen characters. A scene where Joe and David smoke weed and argue over which of them first liked Damien Dempsey is hysterical. Yet it’s also a brief effective moment establishing their brotherly bond.
On top of all this, Slattery manages to include a strong female character. Gemma-Leah Devereux (recently Liza Minnelli in Judy) plays Amia, an unhappily married credit union employee held up at gunpoint during the central robbery. After this, she begins having an affair with David, becoming tangled in his mess. While Amia does wind up a damsel in distress, the film never reduces her to just that. A key plot point hinges on her intelligence. Plus, we believe in her as someone whose near-death experience early on causes her to take stock of her life, a healthy dose of melodrama elevating the movie above being just another masculine fueled cops and robbers tale.
Broken Law has everything one wants in a thriller. It feels contemporary to Ireland now. It has characters and a narrative hook audiences can invest in. It alternates between humour and tension effectively, with a dash of romance as a garnish. While the movie settles all the above in a slightly too predictable and tidy manner, it is satisfying in the conclusion to watch the various pieces Slattery has set up slot together. His debut may not be Cardboard Gangsters. But this reviewer suspects it’ll be as critically acclaimed and successful.