A cross between Robin Hood and Baby Face Nelson, Edwin Boyd was (and still is) Canada’s most popular and notorious bank robber. A decent family man and decorated war hero, he returned from World War II with one dream in mind: to provide for his wife and two children by making a living as an actor. All he got was frustration, desperation, rejection and tragedy. Thanks to careful writing and direction by newcomer Nathan Morlando and a powerful, charismatic centerpiece performance by Canadian heartthrob Scott Speedman, Citizen Gangster is a sympathetic portrait of this legendary career criminal as steeped in nuance and controversy as that of Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde.
Dismayed by public indifference toward wounded veterans, “Eddie” Boyd quit his job as a bus driver to take acting lessons. The film begins with him recording a love song as a present for his wife, Doreen (Kelly Reilly), but his aspirations founder quickly. With no job and no prospects, unable to find employment even as a movie extra and seeing nothing but disappointment and disapproval in the sullen face of his dad, a retired policeman played with quiet but dignified resolve by the great Brian Cox, Boyd used his thick stage makeup to disguise himself and turn to crime. His capers begin as a series of friendly, nonviolent attempts to relieve banks of a few piles of small bills, but in time his experience grew into a full-time scheme to stay afloat in a time of postwar economic hardship. Eventually Edwin Boyd turned into a folk hero.
Rising from obscurity to criminal celebrity and eventually years of incarceration during which he lost everything he held dear to his heart, his story makes for a film of throbbing intensity and nonstop fascination. There is also humor as Eddie amused even himself with his dashing disguises and fearless adventures. By the time he got caught and went to jail for the first time, he was already a glamorous headline star. His bank heists were like movie scenes, replete with dance steps, greasepaint and flirtatious dialogue. (Even the bank tellers were thrilled to see him coming; some of them formed an unofficial fan club and wondered what he would be like in bed.)
Eddie eventually became the head of the Boyd Gang, a group of celebrated crooks he met in prison. They included Lenny Jackson (Kevin Durand), a thug with a severed foot that concealed tiny hacksaw blades that enabled him to break out of prison, and a few others who orchestrated their own downfall by killing a detective who had devoted his own career to tracking them down. During every crisis, Eddie’s wife remained loyal. But the fun had a shelf life that expired too soon. Prison life, escape and hiding on the run was grim, and although Eddie never killed anyone himself, he watched his gang on the gallows while he faced a life sentence. The little-known facts of how the real Edwin Boyd ended up, a hero at last, provides a poignant ending more dramatic than fiction.
It takes an actor of some dimension to pull off a role of such complexity, and Mr. Speedman meets every challenge. He’s always been known for his camera-ready good looks (he was last on view as Rachel McAdams’s drop-dead boyfriend, competing for Channing Tatum’s affections, in The Vow) but this movie really explores his range. He’s a hard character to like, but his refusal to surrender to failure makes him oddly noble. Director Morlando is a talent to watch, but for one major caveat: he’s one of those filmmakers who encourages and indulges a lot of sloppy whispering and mumbling that passes for realism. The irritating result sinks whole scenes in a muddled lack of comprehension. As good as Citizen Gangster is, it would be even better if you could understand the dialogue.
Running Time 105 minutes
Written and Directed by Nathan Morlando
Starring Scott Speedman, Kelly Reilly and Kevin Durand