100 minutes/Opens Thursday (3.5/5)
The story: Joey (Jason Statham) is an Iraq veteran left to his own devices in a London that does not care. He finds relief from combat stress disorder in a bottle, a habit which lands him on the streets. Thugs take his female companion and threaten to kill him, forcing him to flee up a fire escape. He drops into an empty penthouse and takes over the identity of its wealthy owner, who is on an extended overseas trip.
The first thing to note is that this work is not an action movie, despite the casting of Statham in the lead. He appears to have seized on this story as a chance to exercise acting range. Here, he goes from elite warrior to gaunt and grimy street drifter and back again.
That switch is the equivalent of a pretty actress going ugly for the sake of awards, in the style of Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), but he pulls it off.
Statham's performance is understated, believable and, most importantly, does not reek of ego.
While there are a few punch-ups, there is nothing of the kinetic frenzy that marks Statham's most popular products, The Transporter (2002) and Crank franchises (2006, 2009).
Knight has stayed clear of extended action setpieces and in sensibility, he is closer to fellow Briton Stephen Frears, director of Dirty Pretty Things (2002), a well-received drama, also written by Knight, about the more gruesome aspects of London's underground economy.
Here, Knight returns to Dirty's focus on people living in the shadows, on the run from the law or from their pasts. And the engine that drives the story is once again a man's complicated relationship with the woman he loves. Here, the woman is a nun, played with pale intensity by Polish-German actress Agata Buzek.
But slice-of-life authenticity alone does not a compelling story make. This tale is hurt by jerky pacing and minor characters and situations that strain credulity, even as it paints an interesting and little-seen portrait of a London that Knight so obviously loves.