London private eye Tommy (Riz Ahmed) takes the case of a missing sex worker; as his investigation begins to take in radical Islam, property deals and the security services, he must confront a decades-old trauma.
There’s a lot of promise to the premise of City Of Tiny Lights — a contemporary noir set in London, starring man-of-the-moment Riz Ahmed as a PI who seemingly subsists on nothing but whisky and fags. What could possibly go wrong? Sadly, quite a bit. That promise is squandered, and the results are ordinary in the extreme.
Sadly, this noir leaves its best elements in the shadows.
The set-up ticks so many noir boxes, you can imagine the ghost of Raymond Chandler standing in the shadows, nodding approvingly. We have the dingy office, the missing working girl, the world-weary hero, the dodgy feds and, of course, shady business deals — it’s just a pity that all this juicy stuff takes up only half the film, with a huge amount of screen time given to a narrative told in lengthy flashbacks that Philip Marlowe would convey in a line, a shrug and a slug of bourbon.
And what flashbacks these are — a sorry tale of teenage infidelity and betrayal in a cheaply realised 1997, it plays increasingly ludicrously, even if the young actors struggle gamely with weak material. The soapy tragedy builds to a conclusion so melodramatic, it would take a heart of stone not to laugh. There’s also a severe case of flashback syndrome — every character knows what happened, but we’re drip-fed information in a way that frustrates rather than tantalises.
Anyway, this nightmarish event goes some way to explain why Ahmed’s Tommy is such a dour sort, even if he can occasionally come up with a nice zinger. Lines like, “I’ve got bog roll more abrasive than you,” tease the noir-meets-kitchen sink feel we could have had, which is presumably what attracted a class act like Ahmed, but much of the gumshoe work feels perfunctory. His private detective actually does very little detecting, outsourcing a lot of the actual work to a young hanger-on, and the traditional noir pleasure of the scrappy outsider being the smartest guy in the room is somewhat undermined by the fact that it takes him a full hour longer than the audience to realise there’s something off about his property developer mate. Instead, we get endless brooding and a level of chain-smoking and boozing that sits oddly with Ahmed’s gym-toned bod, as anyone who’s hit the weights after a night on the suds will know.
There are flashes of what could have been: London is shot as if it’s twinned with the city from Seven, and Ahmed finding himself caught between sinister War On Terror types and an Islamist group who might be a little too enthusiastic in their beliefs is potentially fascinating. Billie Piper shines in an under-developed role as the girl who got away, Roshan Seth is great fun as Ahmed’s cricket-loving dad, and Alexander Siddig has a standout cameo as a hardcore mullah. Sadly, though, this noir leaves its best elements in the shadows.
Charmless and saddled with disastrous flashbacks, this doesn’t have the street smarts to play its strongest hand. There’s a great film in here struggling to get out, but the definitive London noir still remains unmade.