Review: Forgiveness is a Struggle for an Ex-Con in ‘5lbs of Pressure’, an Unconvincing Crime Drama

Phil Allocco’s film, featuring Luke Evans, follows a criminal’s return to a New York City neighborhood still entrenched in drugs, violence, and retribution, with a plot rich in complications but lacking emotional depth.
5lbs of pressure luke evans

It’s not uncommon in modern film financing mysteries for Manhattan-set movies like “5lbs of Pressure” to be shot in unexpected locations like Manchester, England. While the decision may superficially create a convincing gritty atmosphere, it could partly explain why writer-director Phil Allocco’s crime melodrama, distributed by Lionsgate in theaters and on demand, feels more like it belongs in a semi-mythological movie genreland rather than a palpable, flesh-and-blood community. This disconnect doesn’t hinder the film’s violent thriller elements, but it does limit our emotional connection to its two-dimensional characters, who are presented as tragic figures.

Named after the lethal force behind a handgun’s trigger release, “5lbs of Pressure” crafts an engaging web of misunderstandings, grudges, and doomed trajectories among various shady characters. Set in a New York neighborhood reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” the film presents a polished and colorfully populated environment that captivates attention without leaving a lasting impression. However, the film’s flaw lies in its characters, who are exclusively defined by their outer conflicts. We are never given a glimpse into their inner lives or a sense of connection to a world beyond the hoodlum narrative formulas.

The film opens with a tease of mysterious gunfire inside a dive bar, followed by onscreen text indicating it’s “Four Days Earlier.” Adam DeSalvo, portrayed by Luke Evans, is nearing the end of a three-year probation period after spending 16 years in prison for a murder committed during a turf-war skirmish between young hot-headed individuals. Despite the risks of returning to his old neighborhood, Adam chooses to stay, hoping to mend relationships with his ex-partner and their child.

Adam’s attempts to reconnect with his ex, Donna (Stephanie Leonidas), and their son, Jimmy (Rudy Pankow), are met with resistance. Donna wants nothing to do with him, and Jimmy believes his father abandoned them long ago. Undeterred, Adam persists in his efforts to establish renewed contact with both of them, even as he grapples with the potential consequences of his past actions.

Meanwhile, the pervasive atmosphere of toxic machismo and organized crime that likely influenced the ex-convict’s past decisions continues unchecked. Leff (Alex Pettyfer) is a drug dealer who reluctantly employs his nephew, Mike (Rory Culkin), as a dim-witted errand boy. Despite Mike’s aspirations of becoming a rock musician, he naively believes he can fund his dream by pulling off a big score and outsmarting Leff.

Predictably, Mike’s scheme doesn’t go according to plan, especially given the ruthless nature of other criminal figures in the neighborhood, including characters played by Lorraine Burroughs and James Oliver Wheatley. As tensions escalate, Adam’s return to the neighborhood attracts attention, particularly from Eli, whose anger is fueled by ongoing conflicts with his volatile girlfriend, Lori (Savannah Steyn).

Almost every interaction in the film carries a confrontational undertone, lacking depth or occasional humor to alleviate the tension. Each character, including Adam, is portrayed in a fairly one-dimensional manner, with Adam being depicted solely as a repentant nice guy, without much exploration of his past as a troublemaker.

While some performances veer towards stereotype, the actors generally strive to maintain naturalism, even in menacing or grisly scenes. However, despite their efforts, the ensemble fails to fully convey a sense of reality beyond pulp fiction. Consequently, the film relies on assumed pathos to evoke emotion from the audience, despite the characters’ limited depth.

The film’s split personality is effectively captured by the visually striking lighting effects crafted by cinematographer Sara Deane, creating a stylized color-noir atmosphere. However, this aesthetic clashes with the climactic attempt at unearned sentimentality, including forced pleas against gun violence, a tearful montage of flashbacks, and consecutive “sensitive” acoustic pop songs.

While such devices may be effective in a gloomy street crime melodrama with the tragic depth of “Donnie Brasco,” they feel out of place in a narrative that lacks the necessary emotional weight. The film fails to evoke genuine sentiment beyond surface-level interactions, such as Donna’s blunt frustration towards her ex-partner. While “5lbs of Pressure” is entertaining as a yarn filled with tension and trigger-happy characters, it ultimately falls short in eliciting meaningful emotional reactions from its audience, reducing the losses depicted to mere conventions of underworld melodrama.

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