Yardie is an English-language movie with subtitles, and chances are you’ll need them.

The movie — directed by British star Idris Elba, who stays behind the camera — is adapted from the 1992 Victor Headley novel, a hit in the U.K. for the way it captured life in London’s Jamaican community in the early 1980s (the lingo can be hard for the untrained ear to decipher).

Yardie is the eventful gangland story of a drug courier named Dennis (Aml Ameen) dispatched from Kingston by the wonderfully named crime boss King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), and given explicit instructions to deliver a package of cocaine to a Jamaican expat — the slang term is yardie — named Rico (Stephen Graham).

Dennis (he mostly goes by D) is a peculiar fellow, though, who makes a lot of whimsical, unilateral decisions. He decides he doesn’t like Rico, and absconds with the drugs. Now, he’s alienated his own crew, the small army of street soldiers loyal to Rico, and is soon infuriating his one-time girlfriend (Shantol Jackson), now living in London, a single mother raising their daughter.

She has a right to be angry. You’d be peeved, too, if your boyfriend showed up unannounced with a large brick of cocaine. There are times when Elba seems to want to position Dennis’ wild, impulsive behavior as part of a shaggy-dog comedy — most of the drug dealers are also DJs, and Dennis hooks up with a group of amateurs who want the drugs mainly to finance their next sound clash.

But this meshes poorly with other, heavier story elements — Dennis is literally haunted by the murder of his brother, and is motivated mainly by the reckless and destructive need for vengeance. Ultimately the movie aspires to tragedy, but the flimsy story doesn’t support that kind of dramatic weight.

In the end, a coherent tone eludes Elba, but he shows promise as a scene-setter, and the movie displays an effective use of color. Elba (working with some of his Luther crew) has an eye for action and an ear for the music that helped define the period, especially the vintage tracks from Dennis Brown, Black Uhuru, and Yellow Man.


Yardie. Directed by Idris Elba. With Aml Ameen, Shantol Jackson, Sheldon Shepherd and Stephen Graham. Distributed by Rialto Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.

Parents’ guide: Not rated.

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse.