Jay (Connors), Dano (Walton), Cobbie (Ryan Lincoln) and Glenner (Paul Alwright) have been hanging out in Darndale since they were young boys. Growing up to be small-time drug dealers, they make a move for the big leagues, switching from selling green to the locals to brown. However, heroin distribution in the area is controlled by the middle-aged Derra (Smallhorne), whose wife (Wareing) Jay has recently embarked on a flirty relationship with Jay. When Derra threatens to drag the foursome into his own gang or else, the boys are prepared to stand firm…
Four films in and director Mark O’Connor (Between The Canals, Stalker, King of the Travellers) has delivered the film he's been threatening to, one that finally realises that early promise. Bursting with raw realism, Cardboard Gangsters is a confident and visceral film. While O'Connor has yet to shed his early Scorsese influences (there's a Raging Bull wall-punching moment), and this outing veers into an Irish Boyz In The Hood territory, this crime drama is his most mature film yet. His Darndale here is a real lived-in environment (the script going as far as mentioning certain areas of the estate) and the story unfolds at breakneck speed, slowing down only when Connors and Wareing circle each other; while their romance deliberately contrasts with the seediness of Dano's sexual exploits, O'Connor hints that romantic love has no place in this world with their clandestine affair builds up to nothing more than a snatched, rough session out the back of a club.
The writing is sharper with the bouncy dialogue ringing true (O'Connor shares writing credit with leading man Connors). The surrounding characters are not just wallpaper either but deepen our understanding of Jay and his life choices. His ma (Fiona Hewitt-Twamley)) in debt to Derra, Jason's on-off girlfriend (Toni O'Rourke) falls pregnant, Dano's problems with IRA-connected threaten to derail Jay's under-the-radar plans, and Derra's quiet but sociopathic son (Ciaran McCabe, Dollhouse) itching to prove his worth to his father’s gang.
Love/Hate actor Connors, three times the lead for O’Connor now, has gotten better with every film and delivers a commanding performance in his strongest turn to date. There's enough going on in his eyes to suggest that his Jay is a thoughtful dealer torn between doing what he has to do to provide for his family and disgusted at how his life has turned out. Fionn Walton matches him in a role that shows his range – the introspective and melancholic Ciaran he played in Out of Here is a world away from Dano's wiry, twitchy, heavily tattooed wannabe. He's the loose cannon of the group and one that is most likely to offset Jay's slow and steady plans to climb the ladder.
If there's a fault it's the reliance on a montage, usually a drug-addled party scene set to pumping hip hop or trance, which can get repetitive, but Cardboard Gangsters is a top Irish crime drama.