City of Tiny Lights is a noir-ish, modern day gumshoe flick that makes the most out of a charismatic leading performance from rising star Riz Ahmed. City of Tiny Lights offers little new in terms of plot, atmosphere, and characters, coming across as a boilerplate thriller, but Ahmed remains watchable and magnetic throughout, making it a solid B-movie entry into a clichéd genre.

Tommy Akhtar (Ahmed) is a private investigator of British and Pakistani lineage operating in London’s seedier, gloomier corners. One day a prostitute and  femme fatale type (Cush Jumbo) enters his office wanting Tommy to look into the disappearance of her best friend and co-worker. When Tommy tracks down the missing girl’s last known whereabouts, he doesn’t find her, but he does stumble upon the body of a murdered Pakistani businessman with potential ties to an Islamic extremist organization operating out of a local youth centre. The case, which is also linked to a potentially lucrative gentrification project, also has ties to a tragedy from Tommy’s childhood years that still haunts his memories.

City of Tiny Lights’ screenplay from Patrick Neate (adapting his own novel) ticks off nearly every box in the seedy detective playbook. Tommy’s office is stuffy, with venetian blinds over every window and lit only by a yellowing desk lamp. Every time Tommy walks into a pub, swanky bar, or nightclub, he always orders a double of Wild Turkey, neat. There’s tough-talking, first person narration with borderline risible reflections along the lines of “I deal in secrets” and “Death weighs heavier than heartbreak.” The rain on the streets of London comes down in stair rods. Flashbacks to Tommy’s teenage years and relationships to some of the characters carry a decidedly Stephen King-ish vibe to them.

Tommy has a wise, but crazy father (Roshan Seth) who offers great advice in his moments of clarity. Tommy reignites a tryst with a former childhood acquaintance (Billie Piper) that ended horribly the first time they hooked up. His estranged best friend from childhood (the underrated James Floyd) and primary investigation contact will constantly tell Tommy to stay away from the case for increasingly obvious reasons. Tommy’s aided by a scrappy, foul mouthed teenage accomplice (newcomer and standout Mohammad Ali Amiri). The whole case is tied to something bigger than just a murder and a missing girl, and Tommy will learn that he’s fighting problems within a system designed to make people like him look like losers and bums.

None of these developments will surprise anyone familiar with the genre, and sadly most of the characters’ fates can be gleaned accurately from the moment the viewer meets them. Neither Tommy’s personal arc nor the unfurling of the mystery hold any surprises, but the film’s greatest novelty – telling such a tale from the perspective of a P.I. who isn’t a traditional white or black stereotype – means that the cast has slightly more to work with on a subtextual level. There’s an interesting thread in here about the loss of cultural identity amid London’s increasingly homogenized melting pot, but it’s often lost amid a bunch of overshadowing genre conventions.

Despite the standardized narrative and wheel spinning that keeps the convoluted plot in motion longer than necessary, director Pete Travis (Dredd, Vantage Point) keeps City of Tiny Lights moving briskly, despite an annoying reliance on unnecessary slow-mo, dodgy editorial decisions, and murkier than necessary cinematography.  Travis makes sure that the story moves with a sense of urgency and purpose, presupposing the intelligence of an audience that has seen this plot before. To Travis’ credit, he takes his material at face value and delivers the best possible film from the script that has been provided, giving just as much emotional weight to the flashback sequences as he does to Tommy’s ongoing investigations. There’s not much character to bring out of Neate’s screenplay, but Travis tries to bring out every ounce that he can.

But the main reason to watch City of Tiny Lights is Ahmed. His wide eyes belie a cunning intelligence, and Ahmed draws on his previous career as a rapper to imbue Tommy with a streetwise sensibility, professional ruthlessness, and personal vulnerability. He’s not a detective that needs to swagger all the time to get his job done because he already has a lot of respect within his community. He’s delicate and sensitive, but not fragile and easily broken. Following him around is a joy, even if the character finds himself in a story that audiences have seen done better dozens of times before.

Outside of Ahmed’s great leading turn, City of Tiny Lights is pleasant enough, forgettable entertainment that doesn’t aim high, but also doesn’t cheat the audience. I know that it’s both pleasant and forgettable because I have seen the film twice now, once at TIFF last year (where it made its world premiere) and again earlier this week. I felt the same about it both times, with the only differences being that I felt that it’s in slightly poor taste to be releasing a film whose plot ties into Islamic terrorism in the UK so close to the recent bombing in Manchester, and snickering that the villain’s ultimate motivation is so textbook that I watched the criminal mastermind in the goofy Baywatch movie from last week attempt the same scheme. After watching it twice, I’m not sure I needed that second viewing, but I can’t say I regretted going through it all again.