Gerard Johnson, who wrote and directed the moody crime drama Hyena, claims to have spent over three years researching human trafficking and police corruption in London, and his effort shows in the film’s immersive presentation of both subjects. Johnson’s camera is rarely more than a few feet away from his characters; intimations of the knotty system they inhabit—a crisscrossed network of corrupt cops, immigrant crime families, informants, and modern-day slaves—enter the frame from all directions. The handheld camera, in turn, is almost always in motion, as if struggling to keep up with all the shifting alliances. Johnson shot the film around the west London neighborhoods where he lives, and while the locations feel authentically grungy, he also gives them a certain allure, filming under romantic neon lighting that’s plainly influenced by Michael Mann and Abel Ferrara.
At the center of Hyena is Michael Logan, an archetypal corrupt cop with a personal code of honor. He exploits his position on the drug squad to extort money from crime families and feed his cocaine habit, yet for all his transgressions, he’s a competent detective. (The opening scene shows him successfully carrying out a drug bust in a matter of minutes.) Recruited by Interpol to break up an Albanian human-trafficking ring, Michael sees an opportunity to do something genuinely good with his talents. But just as Johnson’s camera can’t seem to look beyond the characters’ immediate surroundings, neither can Michael shake the corrupt practices that enabled him to make inroads into the criminal underworld. His ingrained corruption proves to be his downfall; in the final half hour he unravels along with his investigation, bringing suffering on everyone around him.
Johnson aspires to make Hyena into the stuff of classical tragedy, yet he telegraphs Michael’s inward transformation way too soon—even when the thuggish cop beats up arrestees or throws a wild drug party, he doesn’t seem that bad. As opposed to Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (a key influence), Hyena never inspires revulsion at corrupt cops or intimates that the antihero is beyond redemption. As Michael, Peter Ferdinando is too soft; with the sorry-little-boy look in his eyes, he doesn’t seem like much of a tough guy, nor does he have the charisma to make the character’s buried nobility endearing. Neil Maskell, who played a truly reprehensible character in Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, is more revolting and more compelling in his role as one of Michael’s police colleagues. His moments of unhinged brutality hint at the more powerful film Hyena might have been. v