Unfortunately, the most notable thing about new sorta-cyber thriller Black Mail is that this weekend it is receiving the widest release ever — 100 screens — in the UK for an independent Black British film. That’s a nice barrier to break, and I wish I could recommend the film.
Does anyone actually fall for those sextortion emails in which scammers inform you — invariably in broken English and with no proof whatsoever — that they’ve installed spyware on your computer and have recorded video of you “having fun” at a p0rn website, and threaten to send it to all your contacts unless you placate them with some Bitcoin? Well, Ray Chinda (Nollywood star O.C. Ukeje: Gone Too Far!, Half of a Yellow Sun) falls for it… and reacts in a ridiculously stupid way that confirms him as an easy mark. Even more unlikely than that, Chinda is meant to be “a world-famous action star at the top of his career” (according to the film’s official site), but the rinky-dink movie sets we see him on don’t even hint at this, and the only professional support he has is a part-time manager, Reuben (Alessandro Babalola)… who runs a bar the other part of the time. Oh, and Reuben is a cousin to his wife, Nikki (Julia Holden). This is not the life of a global movie star.
Prolific Nigerian filmmaker Obi Emelonye is working with a low budget, but his direction is adept enough given those limitations, even if the most he makes of his London setting is drone shots of the skyline. The problem is the script (Emelonye’s own), which is by turns overly earnest and naively preposterous, and which fails to give Chinda the agency he needs to be the driving force in what is meant to be his own story: he wants to avert the disaster of an embarrassing video going public but does very little at all. Instead, Emelonye casts his villain, Russian scammer Igor (Nikolay Shulik), in an unwarranted sympathetic light even as the plot detours into a plan to bring down Igor’s side gig in *checks notes* human trafficking. Chinda is not a player in that plan. Two different movies are inexpertly smushed together here, and in the second one, Emelonye mostly sidelines the women under Igor’s control — notably those played by Jelena Borovskaya and Natalia N. — who are the ones attempting to bring him down.
What we’re left with is a mess of retro ideas about marriage and men’s sexual needs; somehow, it ends up Nikki’s fault that Chinda is, we are informed out of the blue late in the movie, a p0rn addict. The moralizing is misplaced, the suspense is lacking, and the ending is, at best, anticlimactic. Black Mail thinks it’s tough, fast-paced, and hard-hitting, but all it is is limp.