When Citizen Gangster originally premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011, it went by the markedly less ludicrous name Edwin Boyd. A Canadian-produced biopic about Toronto’s most infamous bank robber—which, fame-wise, is kind of like being Sri Lanka’s most infamous plate-spinner—Citizen Gangster now has a new label that positions it more squarely as an everyman bank-robber picture, like a Canadian knock-off of Michael Mann’s Public Enemies.
Scott Speedman stars as a wannabe actor stuck driving a bus in Toronto after returning home from World War II. Turned away by a local acting studio, Speedman puts on some stage makeup, pulls his best James Cagney impression, and takes to knocking over local banks. As he starts making headlines, he amps up the theatrics, hurdling over kiosks, flirting with cashiers, and soft-shoeing atop bank countertops. Personality isn’t enough to keep him out of the clink, though, and a stint in jail sets him up with a handful of other petty thugs whose desperation and knack for violence matches Speedman’s showmanship. Things eventually turns ugly for the Boyd Gang, which trades the thrill of high-stakes hold-ups for the boredom of safehouses.
Briskly pushed along by first-time director Nathan Morlando, and gorgeously shot by cinematographer Steve Cosens—who exquisitely lenses northern Ontario as a stand-in for 1950s Toronto—Citizen Gangster hits its marks when it’s exploding the character’s larger-than-life status, aided in large part by Speedman’s career-best turn. But the film feels overloaded. Speedman’s charismatic crook has fun skirting the law, but it’s dampened by high melodrama about his splintering relationship with his fretting wife (Kelly Reilly) and terminally disappointed cop dad (Brian Cox). Clearly, Morlando’s aim is to render Boyd in three dimensions, tortured conscience, interpersonal conflicts, and all. All well and good, but it doesn’t necessarily jibe with the film’s snappy capering. It feels like Morlando is juggling two movies at a time. And only one of them works really well—the one about a disaffected workaday vet avenging himself on the banality of his daily grind.