Running Time: 102 mins
UK Distributor: Vertigo Releasing
UK Release Date: 9 February 2024
WHO’S IN GASSED UP?
Stephen Odubola, Steve Toussaint, Mae Muller, Taz Skylar, Craige Middleburg, Jelena Gavrilovic, Mohammed Mansaray, Tobias Jowett, Tomi May, Rawdat Quadri, Ben Shafik, Tim Chipping, David Monteith, Harry Pinero, Yung Filly, Ms Banks
WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?
George Amponsah (director), Archie Maddocks and Taz Skylar (writers), Edward Caffrey, Stefan D’Bart, Rupert Preston, Hester Ruoff and Bart Ruspoli (producers), Henry Counsell (composer), Stefan Ciupek (cinematographer), Richard Ketteridge (editor)
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
A London moped gang crosses paths with a dangerous crime family…
WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON GASSED UP?
Now that we’re living in a post-American Fiction world, it has become easier than ever to spot the signs of Black storytellers being pigeon-holed into telling specific stories that reinforce negative stereotypes. So, at first glance, director George Amponsah’s Gassed Up seems like it’s adding fuel to the fire, with prominent Black characters indulging in criminal activity whilst wielding harmful weapons, while their parental figures are either drug addicts or entirely absent.
However, the key phrase in that previous sentence is “at first glance”. Upon closer inspection, Gassed Up is a much more challenging and carefully thought-out film that Amponsah – and the script by Archie Maddocks and Taz Skylar (the latter also taking on a prominent supporting role in the film) – constructs around the perceived racial stereotypes listed above. The creative team certainly doesn’t avoid every convention, but they still do a remarkable job of skirting around them to find a sensitive humanity that drives this ultimately crowd-pleasing ride.
Set in London, the film follows a gang of moped riders – consisting of Ash (Stephen Odubola), Dubz (Skylar), Roach (Craige Middleburg), Kabz (Mohammed Mansaray) and Mole (Tobias Jowett) – who regularly commit a string of daylight thefts from unassuming residents, grabbing their mobile phones and purses and then riding off before they can react. They are then paid handsomely by Dubz’s connections within an Albanian crime syndicate, headed by the cold-hearted Shaz (Jelena Gavrilovic), but Ash intends to use his cash wisely, by supporting his younger sister Jas (Rawdat Quadri) and finding their drug-addicted (and off-screen) mother a suitable rehabilitation program.
Of course, it doesn’t take long for the gang’s highs to become lows, particularly as some of them – most notably Roach, who also happens to be Ash’s closest childhood friend – begin displaying some rather disturbing behaviour during their thievery. Then, things get worse when Shaz demands that they make the leap to robbing jewellery stores, which turns out to be much more dangerous than any of them could ever have predicted. All of these progressively trickier situations lead Ash to determine whether or not he is meant for this life, and that he must do something before the damage becomes irreparable.
The first half of Amponsah’s film is a lively, energetic affair that clearly takes after Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas in how it ironically romanticises the criminal activity that our main characters partake in. Not only does it grant them significant financial rewards and an elevated social status, but there is a real addiction to the thrill of it all, which the director – making the leap to narrative filmmaking following his BAFTA-nominated Mark Duggan documentary The Hard Stop – shows through some riding sequences that get the adrenalin pumping. Some gritty GoPro shots place the viewer on the bikes as this gang rides across town committing all sorts of petty theft, or in the case of one sequence that blatantly homages The Fast and the Furious, racing each other in abandoned car parks. Through other scenes set during 8 Mile-style rap battles and apartment block raves, Amponsah brings a fierce vision to the subculture that makes it as alluring as it undoubtedly is to the protagonists.
Then, inevitably, reality hits like a car to one of the speeding mopeds. After such a stern focus on this risky but ego-boosting venture – to where Stephen Odubola’s Ash has numerous fantasies where he’s the most popular guy on the block for his actions – the filmmakers do not hold back on showing the far uglier side of being involved in organised crime. People are roughed up, their families are threatened, friendships and relationships are destroyed, and there’s even an assault which may trigger some who may still be reeling from the memory of George Floyd’s untimely demise. Neither Amponsah nor the screenwriters allow much room for optimism during this section (save for a conclusion which ends things on a reasonably Hollywood note), and through some tight editing, distorting cinematography, and a number of deeply committed performances, especially from Odubola who should, in a just outcome, be well on the path to stardom after people see him in this film, the psychological damage is put on full display.
It is strong stuff from these filmmakers, who tell this fierce cautionary tale with gusto and sensitivity, ultimately to where audiences can admire its eagerness to go deeper into the psychology of this particular youth culture than, say, any of the Kidulthood movies. It certainly isn’t without its more questionable moments that take you out of the otherwise grounded narrative, such as cartoonishly abusive fathers and main characters who are massively built-up only to then disappear entirely from the final reel without explanation, but Gassed Up manages to overcome a lot of its other familiar attributes with a hard-hitting style which emphasises the dangerous thrill of living too vigorously in the fast lane.
I know it’s easy to judge a film like this based on how it looks no different to many other films about youth-led crime like Blue Story (which Odubola incidentally also starred in), and thus escalates the problems addressed in American Fiction. However, I do implore you to look at it from a much closer angle, and you’ll find that Gassed Up has much more than just fuel running its engine.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Gassed Up is a thrilling depiction of British youth crime that steadily goes from a lively romanticisation to depicting its uglier and even disturbing consequences with unflinching eyes, which George Amponsah’s stylish direction and a star-making turn by Stephen Odubola adds plenty of crowd-pleasing adrenalin to.