English views of the '50s rock 'n' roll era invariably serve up the same rose-tinted view employed in Grease and TV's Lipstick On Your Collar. Here, first-time director Jez Butterworth tries to direct familiar themes into new, darker, territory. Airhead girls, romance and buddy bonding are all present, but only in the background of a murkier and less playful narrative that paints an uncompromisingly grim view of the male-dominated world of the late '50s Soho club scene.
Adapted from Butterworth's award-winning play of the same name, Mojo's script strips out much of the dialogue that traditionally weighs down stage-to-screen conversions. Because of this, the action rattles restlessly from one scene to the next, rapidly popping from gang-land killings to sweaty concerts to verbal confrontation and back-biting. But while Butterworth's fidgety camerawork adds to this rush through the story, his lack of directorial flair unfortunately causes the scenes to jump erratically from one to another rather than flow smoothly together, making Mojo difficult to watch.
Like Alan Rickman's The Winter Guest and Sean Mathias' Bent, Mojo hasn't made a successful transition from the constraints of the stage to the freedom of the big screen and its brisk pace fails to disguise Butterworth's brittle and stuffy choreography. Occasional outdoor locations seem an obvious device to convince the viewer that the full potential of film is being exploited (it isn't); but each dramatic sequence is claustrophobic and stifled, with the actors confined to a small space, almost as if the director's afraid they'll wander too far and somehow fall off the screen.
That said, the performances provide some of the verve that the direction lacks. Hart turns in a full-blooded and believable Mickey, Gillen plays Baby as a petulant, out-of-time John Lydon and Pinter proves he's almost as talent-ed an actor as he is a playwright. Most compelling is Bremner's (Spud in Trainspotting) quirky turn as the bullied Skinny, but the talented cast can't redeem this well-intentioned, but flawed, effort to create good cinema from a theatrical hit.
Brimming with ambition and blessed with a top-notch cast, Mojo should breathe a breath of fresh air into the stale, cheesy stereotype of the rock 'n' roll era. But Butterworth's flaccid directing causes this be an ultimately disappointing experience.