London, England makes for the perfect noir playground in Pete Travis’ (Dredd) latest film, City of Tiny Lights. It’s a modest, indie flavoured picture starring Riz Ahmed, who you’ll see in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story later this year. Ahmed is an electrifying young actor you may recognize from his intense portrayal of an innocent student turned prime murder suspect in The Night Of, or his devastating turn in Nightcrawler where he chews the screen with Jake Gyllenhaal. This emerging talent is very much the key to City of Tiny Lights’ occasional glimmers of quality, he navigates the mean streets of London as Tommy Akhtar — a chain smoking, cheeky yet noble private investigator. Akhtar’s been hired by a prostitute named Melody (Cush Jumbo) to find a fellow sex worker who has gone missing.
Akhtar tracks down the missing woman’s last client, who (you guessed it) is laying dead in a hotel room. This is a Neo-noir after all; the abundant cigarette smoke, roaming detective work, seedy pubs, and of course, the mystery. It’s all here. However, unique is main character Akhtar, a tough as nails Muslim immigrant who’s fit to roll with the likes of J.J. Gittes.
The narrative (based on Patrick Neate’s novel of the same name) jumps frequently to the past when Akhtar was a teenager in love with his best friend’s girlfriend, Shelly. Lovely (James Floyd), another close friend who’s also seen in the past with Akhtar, has now become a successful businessman in the community, but not without the hand of criminal activity that encapsulates the war on terror, American intelligence agencies and the endless trail of drug money. City of Tiny Lights’ weaves the past and present well, connecting both stories to reveal the sins of every major character, the corrupt motivation for the groups involved and how the radicalized foot soldiers of ideology can be mere puppets in the underbelly of organized crime.
Travis creates an indelible look and feel with a shaky, DIY camera tracing through ear-piercing dance clubs and ritzy hotels, soaking in the gritty nighttime concrete. Unfortunately, He meanders too frequently on superfluous material that chops up the pacing, and it’s hard to stay focused on the plot, which ultimately proves uninteresting. Riz Ahmed does keeps it sharp, though, owning much of the runtime.
Ahmed as a hardboiled sleuth can be absorbing drama. Cozy in our seats as he roams the gutters in a trace, looking for answers, we learn of his lost love and the lives he transformed. Just another whiskey drinking, leather clad bruiser among the masses? No. Everyone has a dark story in this picture, often steeped in cynicism and sometimes anguish.