Has there been a comedy with this many ass kickings since the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing? The only thing that comes to mind is Michael Bay’s recent Pain & Gain, which has not only ass kickings, but dismemberments, bludgeoning and deaths.
Fortunately, The Angels’ Share isn’t as grim as either of those two very different movies, but because it’s directed by Ken Loach, the sort of grandfather of British social realism in film, it has its darker moments. Robbie (Paul Brannigan) is beaten to a pulp at least twice, and at one point holds a knife to another character’s eye and threatens to gouge it.
That’s all prelude to the comedy—seriously. The Angels’ Share is a caper film about second, third and fourth chances. And even if those chances all have to do with crime, they’re crimes with an eye toward pulling a big enough score that one never has to commit another crime or need more chances.
Such is the set-up for many a caper comedy. Loach and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, manage to subvert expectations while delivering hearty laughs and even adding a little pathos.
Robbie is young Glaswegian with a history of getting into fights and landing guys in the hospital. At a court hearing, he tells the judge he’ll go straight this time if given the shot—his girlfriend, Leonie (Siobhan Reilly) is pregnant with their son—and he wants to be a positive force in his kid’s life.
Even though Robbie has a jacket an inch thick, the judge agrees to let Robbie off with 300 hours of community payback, the UK’s version of community service. It’s there, while working in a dilapidated building, that Robbie meets Harry (John Henshaw), a tough but warm supervisor, who encourages Robbie to stay straight.
Harry also introduces Robbie to fine whiskey, and as it happens, Robbie has a nose for it. He even impresses a few serious whiskey authorities, including Rory McAllistair (played by real life authority Charles Maclean).
The caper comes into the story when Leonie’s father offers Robbie a deal to take some money, leave Glasgow and go to London. Robbie—who’s constantly being chased down by a local tough named Dougie (James Casey), whose father has a problem with Robbie’s father—refuses the deal, intent on raising his son.
It just so happens that a cask of Malt Mill, a long-thought-to-be-lost Scotch whiskey, has been discovered and is set for auction. Robbie and his friends, Mo (Jasmin Riggins), Rhino (William Ruane), and Albert (Gary Maitland), dressed as Highlanders and with a fake whiskey club name, conspire to steal from the cask and sell the Malt Mill for tens of thousands of pounds to the highest bidder.
The crime of stealing the whiskey is simultaneously one of the funniest and most tense on-screen thefts in the past few years; Robbie attempts to siphon the liquor into empty Irn-Bru bottles as his co-conspirators wait outside. Needless to say, he’s interrupted; needless to say, he’s nearly caught more than once.
One of the most appealing things about The Angels’ Share (the 2 percent of whiskey that evaporates from a cask each year) is its ability to change tone so often and so successfully. Brannigan, a non-actor who’s been homeless, brings intensity and sincerity to the role, and it helps him and the rest of the cast get through some of its sillier moments—any scene where all the thieves are posing as Highlanders, for example. Another bonus is the heavy brogue that each actor carries, along with a million utterances of the word “cunt” as if it were just another word.
Whether Robbie and his pals go straight is another story for another time, but The Angels’ Share has everything—street fights, comedy and drama—and there’s even a ride off into the dull gray mist in place of a sunset. It’s still Glasgow, after all.
THE ANGELS’ SHARE
Directed by Ken Loach
With Paul Brannigan, Jasmin Riggins and William Ruane