Tales of Babylon opens with a cycling montage from the daily routine of bespectacled milquetoast Martin (Philip Tomlin). To the ironically repeating lyric “I follow you” from Lykke Li’s I Follow Rivers (2011) on the soundtrack, the camera remains fixed in medium close-up on Martin’s face, following his every disconsolate, down-trodden expression as he wakes, eats, wanks, gets viciously bullied by local thugs, is chewed out by the manager of the bar where he works, is annoyed by an over-cheery customer, wanks some more, wanks yet again, and goes to bed. The heavy focus on masturbation may evoke Pelayo De Lario’s feature debut Jack (2021) with its similar interest in an arrested character’s close relationship with his own member – yet far from being another sweetly awkward coming-of-age comedy, De Lario’s second feature is a genre pastiche of a decidedly darker tone, as is demonstrated when Martin, finally snapping under all these serial humiliations, brutally, bloodily butchers one of his tormentors with a garden trowel. The worm has turned, and there can be no going back.
Martin will quickly be forgotten in this fragmented, chronology-leaping, jigsaw-like ensemble piece that deftly shifts its attention from one set of characters to another and only gradually allows viewers to see the connections between its disparate narrative threads. Where Martin is a newcomer to crime, the other players here are all deeply involved in London’s extralegal underworld, whether by profession or blood. There is a captive young Kid (Billie Gadsdon), watched over by a trio of amateurish goons (Brandin Burke, Liran Nathan, Elijah Duma) while their boss, the co-called – and would-be – Professional (Albert Tallski) is elsewhere engaged. There are the killers X (Ray Calleja) and Y (Aaron Cobham), out looking for the Kid’s older brother Alex (Dylan Gladson), and the pair of crime scene cleaners (Aidan Mosby, Stephanie Louise) on whose services they call whenever things get messy. There is the Kid’s Grandpa Banksbi (Clive Russell), a creepy, corrupting kingpin who goes by the nom du guerre Silver Dragon, and who will stop at nothing to get his missing daughter, or even better his granddaughter, back under his wing. And there is Silver Dragon’s right hand woman Svetlana (Maria Crittell), aka Mother Nature, a cool one-eyed assassin whose allegiances are becoming impossibly conflicted. As the different denizens of this rogues’ gallery circle, bump and clash in ever more chaotic configurations, eventually Martin too will make his unexpected but inevitable return as the wild card in what is an already complicated caper.
When Y suggests that X, in sporting a white streak in his hair, has ‘copied’ the appearance of the actor Richard Madden, X will insist: “Not copied – more like inspiration.” It is as good a manifesto as any for a film that wears its influences on its sleeve, while finding its own space into which to let borrowed tropes run wild and free. With its criss-crossing, karmic criminal escapades, and even with the trivial bantering (like this conversation about hair style, or others about food) that punctuate its otherwise violent scenes, Tales of Babylon owes an obvious, open debt to the works of Quentin Tarantino, and even has X at one point expressly comparing their situation to one found in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). Yet where that film’s hitmen Jules and Vincent (played by Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta, both duly name-checked here) discussed McDonald’s all-American Cheeseburgers and their international expansion (under different names), De Lario is preoccupied with more local colour: X offering a paean to chicken shops as “the real London”, or crimelord Banksbi whacking a traitor over tea and biscuits (with Union Jacks decorating the walls of his home). Sure this is a gangster flick that knowingly appropriates American stylings, but it is also a kind of city symphony for the United Kingdom’s multicultural, melting-pot capital. Though it may end in a wild Mexican standoff, and with its heroes walking off into the sunset, this is an oater of an unusually English variety.
“Look out, Hollywood, here I come,” go the lyrics to Father John Misty’s Funtimes in Babylon (2012) which play over the film’s closing credits. In a way, this is what Tales of Babylon, hyperviolent yet with heart, represents: an exuberant, unpredictable clusterfuck of a movie, serving all at once as a calling card for America’s film industry to embrace De Lario, and as a demonstration that if you cannot go to Hollywood, you can at least bring something of Tinseltown to London Town.
strap: Pelayo De Lario’s crime caper translocates its Tarantino-esque criss-crossing ensemble chaos to London
© Anton Bitel