"Brighton Rock," Graham Greene's famous 1938 novel about a sociopathic teenage gangster was made into an equally famous 1947 film starring a young Richard Attenborough in a performance that gave an entire generation the cold creeps.
Set in 1964, at the cusp of the mods and rockers era, the remake of "Brighton Rock" is a heavy-duty slab of gangster noir punctuated by moments of virtuoso violence. Unlike most British crime films these days, this one doesn't take its cue from a relentlessly assaultive film like "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," which placed its audience in the cross hairs along with the bad guys. Writer-director Rowan Joffe has a more old-fashioned take on thuggery. He lets it play out in real time with an almost operatic flourish.
Sam Riley's Pinkie won't erase the memory of Attenborough for most people who saw the earlier film, but this scar-faced mannequin with ultra-slick hair is scary enough. He carries a bottle of acid in his pocket but he doesn't need to, really. His very presence is acidic.
To maintain his alibi after offing a rival gang member (Sean Harris), Pinkie seduces a potential witness, Rose (Andrea Riseborough), a local waitress whose naiveté is breath-taking. Her wised-up boss, the red-headed Ida (Helen Mirren), sees where this is going and attempts to short-circuit the situation and save the girl.
Pinkie and Ida are the film's moral counterweights. What gives the film its mite of ambiguity is Greene's famously ambivalent take on Roman Catholicism – what he called "the appalling strangeness of God's mercy." (Greene was a Catholic convert.) Pinkie, loathsome as he is, fears divine retribution. In a way, he's even more scared than the congenitally jittery Rose. He's almost entirely loathsome but there's that speck of religiosity in him – that ache for redemption – that confounds.
Joffe for the most part amps up the melodrama without tearing Greene's complex weave, but everything unravels toward the end with some staggeringly bad staging. It's as if the film itself had been mugged. Despite everything, the well-acted "Brighton Rock" is still compelling, which proves yet again that Greene is such a cinematic storyteller that his books are nearly damageproof. Grade: B (Unrated.)