To quote Nelson from The Simpsons, “I can think of two things wrong with that title.” Citizen Gangster’s antihero is a bank robber, not an organized crime kingpin, and the scope and vision implied by the allusion to a certain 1941 movie lie well beyond this film’s grasp.
Edwin Boyd was indeed a larger-than-life figure, at least in the Canada of the late 1940s and early 1950s, when he became notorious for holding up banks while wearing his wife’s makeup as a disguise. But as played by Scott Speedman in this biopic (written and directed by Nathan Morlando), Boyd remains opaque, unsympathetic, and colorless. Citizen Gangster is an oppressively gray film in both its look (its color stock is desaturated to evoke wintry Toronto and underline its period setting) and its emotional palette.
A World War II veteran frustrated by limited professional opportunities, Boyd sticks up a bank and finds he has a flair for robbery, if only because his boldness takes the staff by surprise. He can’t keep getting away with it, of course, and he’s arrested, but prison proves fairly easy to break out of. (At times, Citizen Gangster plays like an exposé of the inadequacies of Canada’s law enforcement and penal system in the mid-20th century.)
The script pays lip service to Boyd’s status as a folk hero — the newspaper reporters who visit him in prison get a kick out of his quips, and a female teller at a bank he’s robbing breathily confesses that she and her colleagues fantasize about him — and his psychological motivations are encapsulated by his comment that robbing banks makes him feel “alive.” But Speedman’s performance fails to exhibit the panache everyone keeps talking about. While Boyd’s theatrical bent is signaled in his thwarted pursuit of an acting career and his use of cosmetics for crime, Speedman seems slightly embarrassed dancing atop a counter during a robbery. After Boyd teams up with his fellow prison escapees (Kevin Durand and Brendan Fletcher) on a new crime spree, the film’s focus disperses among the other characters, and the supposedly flamboyant Boyd fades into the background of this already drab movie.
As Citizen Gangster plods along its well-worn arc, individual moments hint at a more complex and involving story: The effect of war on Boyd’s psyche surfaces in an early scene where he is working as a bus driver and carries a wheelchair-bound veteran on to the bus, extending courtesy to the fellow vet and resenting the stares of the other passengers. Boyd’s father (Brian Cox) was a police officer, an irony that’s barely explored. And the scene in which he’s visited by the detective on his son’s trail (William Mapother), who happens to be a friend and colleague, promises tension that the dialogue fails to deliver.
Perhaps Morlando — for whom this film was a long-gestating labor of love, and whose research reportedly led to a friendship with the real Boyd — hewed too closely to fact in shaping this story. He certainly didn’t invest it with a fresh perspective or sense of style. Bonnie and Clyde — to cite an obvious antecedent — reinvented its Depression-era outlaws as counterculture heroes, plowing over its contradictions with imagination and verve. Citizen Gangster attempts something similar, but it fails to breathe new life into its familiar material.