Swaggering gallusly in the footsteps of disappointing adaptations of Ecstasy and The Acid House and a full 17 years after Danny Boyle's chirpy, cheeky, sanitised Carry On Up The Shooting Gallery version of Irvine Welsh's classic novel Trainspotting changed British cinema – in the process giving us Cool Britannia, Ewan McGregor's knob and a thousand unimaginative heroin-chic ad campaigns – Scots director Jon S Baird has filmed Welsh's most unfilmable novel, Filth, and in McAvoy's portrayal of dodgy copper Bruce Robertson has given us a Laughing Policeman who makes the Bad Lieutenant look like your local Lollipop Lady.
Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat but the festive spirit that fills misanthropic, bigoted, boorish, alcoholic, drug-addled Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson is 40%abv. Saddled with leading the investigation of the racially motivated murder of a Japanese student, Robertson's more concerned with how the case will affect his upcoming jolly to Hamburg and his chances of gaining that coveted promotion at work than finding the killers as he bullies, smears and manipulates his colleagues to gain the upper hand in "the Games", his gladiatorial philosophy of life.
A creature of pure appetite slowly being consumed by his own hungers, Robertson's debauched lifestyle is starting to catch up with him however and he's facing stiff competition at work from his coked-up protégé Ray Lennox (Bell) and ambitious, fast-tracked feminist Amanda Drummond (Poots). He's not quite the player he used to be and as the investigation creeps closer to home, implicating him, Bruce finds his fragile sanity starting to crack under the combined pressure of his crimes and his personal demons, forcing him to confront some very dark truths.
A rabid, drooling Alsatian of a movie that chases you up a dark, depraved alleyway, knocks you to the ground and rampantly humps your leg, every review of Baird's savage, vibrant, brutally comic adaptation of Irvine Welsh's Filth will inevitably compare it to Danny Boyle's adaptation of Welsh's first novel, Trainspotting.
Which is something of a shame as, despite having some of the book's rougher edges smoothed (yup, the bestiality stuff is out as is Robertson's obsession with his leprous psoriasis) and its boldest gambit, Bruce's narrating tapeworm (a literal and metaphorical illustration of his corruption), excised, Filth is arguably a purer vehicle for Welsh's vision than Boyle's self-consciously hip Trainspotting, Baird refusing to skimp on the more squalid, troubling aspects of the novel where Boyle glamourised the sordid exploits of his pack of junkies.
With his boyish good looks obscured by a ratty ginger beard, face puffed and sweaty and eyes like piss-holes in the snow, McAvoy is absolutely ferocious as Robertson, a gleefully immoral (as opposed to amoral) antihero, malevolently toying with the lives of those around him purely for the shit and giggles of it, trying to fill the void inside. A borderline sociopath, he's the big dog down the station house, the alpha male, everybody's best friend and that's exactly how McAvoy plays him. Every office has one; he's that cocky, handsome, popular guy at work who's the life and soul, who has everyone fooled, who's always there nudging, cajoling, intimidating you to go that little bit further, bending everyone to his will, who everyone knows there's something not quite right about but he's just so much damn fun to be with.
Hoovering drugs, chainsmoking and boozing constantly, Robertson's a bigot and a misogynist, defines himself crucially through his almost satyr-like sexuality. Loathsome and sleazy, he skives off work to shag a colleague's wife (a terrifying Dickie), sexually abuses the underage schoolgirl girlfriend of an informer (forcing her to fellate him before complaining about her technique), makes explicit crank calls to the wife, Bunty (Henderson), of his only real friend, the pathetic, hero-worshipping Bladesy (a puppyish Marsan), while creepily masquerading as comic Frank Sidebottom.
Yet, he's a seductive presence, a caustically funny unreliable narrator and most unjustified of sinners who says and does the things most of us lack the courage to, McAvoy finding the humanity at the heart of his diabolical detective, forcing us to empathise, if not sympathise, with Welsh's most unrepentant devil.
A charismatic chancer playing office politics sliding past on surface charm and bluster, Robertson sees himself as a master puppeteer gathering strings and forcing his colleagues to dance to his tune. Or so he thinks. But beneath the surface, McAvoy's Robertson is paddling furiously, he's coming apart at the seams, his drug abuse and alcoholism raging out of control, he's in the grip of a mental breakdown and the care of a possibly imaginary shrink (an unhinged Broadbent).
McAvoy's ably supported by a fantastic cast, Bell making a better fist of an Edinburgh accent than Jonny Lee Miller ever did as Robertson's chinged-up protégé Lennox, constantly sniffing through powder dusted nostrils, his Billy Elliott co-star Gary Lewis gives good bluster as one of the senior members of the team and John Sessions is also good as his aspiring screenwriter boss but Robertson's greatest weakness and biggest fear are the women in his life who dominate him, exposing his illusion of control and while his work nemesis Poots and Joanne Froggat's sympathetic widow offer very different forms of redemption, Robertson's greatest danger lies in his poised, alluring wife Carol (the wonderful Macdonald) who harbours his darkest secret.
Perhaps the most refreshing thing about Filth is its undeniably Scottish swagger. Pugnaciously punching above its weight and sticking two fingers up at the zeitgeist Boyle's Trainspotting raced after, Filth's a dark morality tale that's unafraid of showing just how good being bad can be, an in-your-face, hallucinatory strut on the wild side that never sanitises or excuses its protagonist's excesses even as it celebrates them and it boasts perhaps the finest, funniest musical cameo you'll see this year.
Bravely staying true to the spirit of the novel (including its shocking, bleak, climax), Baird and McAvoy have fashioned a future Christmas classic to rival It's A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol and Die Hard.
EXTRAS ★★★ An audio commentary with film writer-director Baird and novelist Irvine Welsh; film junket interviews with McAvoy (9:53), Baird (9:55) and Welsh (21:04); four deleted scenes (8:26); three extended scenes (15:50); and a collection of outtakes (6:32).