Ken Loach's latest film, "The Angels' Share," begins with a pretty uproarious scene. Somewhere in Glasgow, Scotland, Albert (Gary Maitland) is drunk and, bottle in hand, getting drunker. He's stumbling around a tube station, dangerously close to the edge of the tracks. We hear in voiceover the court proceedings. "This is an unusual case, my lord. The accused was at an unmanned station under the influence of a strong fortified wine." "This is God calling," an operator who sees him on surveillance says before telling him, with much profanity, to step away from the edge, as a train is about to barrel through in seconds.

Then come a couple more amusing accused criminals before the magistrate, Mo (Jasmine Riggins) and Rhino (William Ruane). The story of Robbie (Paul Brannigan) is not at all funny, though. Having grown up with both mother and father in and out of prison, Robbie's followed in their footsteps, having done time for a violent assault. He's been arrested for another one, but as it was provoked by the thugs he attacked -- and because Robbie's been straight for nearly a year and has a baby on the way with his girlfriend -- the judge grants him mercy: community payback (known here as community service) instead of a sentence.

We'll see that back-and-forth throughout the film: a scene of hilarity followed by one of horror. Many critics seem to think the 76-year-old English director has gone a bit soft and made a warm-hearted crime caper. But that's a strange summary of a film that intersperses the comedy with acts of brutality. In fact, Loach is as aware as ever of the circumstances that often seem to conspire against young men and women of the working-class from moving up the class ladder. "The Angels' Share" certainly has elements of a crime caper -- but this rich film is actually so much more.

On screen
'The Angel's Share'
» Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars
» Starring: Paul Brannigan, John Henshaw, Jasmine Riggins
» Director: Ken Loach
» Rated: Not rated, adult language, scenes of violence
» Running time: 101 minutes

At first it seems the focus might be on the dimwitted Albert. He shows up for his first stint of community payback on the wrong day. Harry (John Henshaw), the man in charge, says, "If you can tell me what year it is, you can come with us." Albert feels like he's a game-show contestant. "Can I phone a friend?" he asks. But Harry is short a couple men, so he lets Albert earn some hours by helping to paint a community. And Harry, as we'll soon see, is a bit of a softie, who wants to help these youngsters graduate to a better life.

Robbie is having the most trouble doing so, it seems. When he goes to visit his girlfriend in the hospital after she's gone into labor, her uncles take him to a stairwell, beats him, and promises the worst if they see him again. He's also hunted by the leader of the gang he did damage to. But the birth of a son changes Robbie -- as does having to face the young man he randomly assaulted before being put in prison. He vows never to do harm to anyone again. But the scars on his face mark him as a man involved in trouble, and he can't find a job.

He does find a talent, though -- for whisky. (The film's subtitles -- it's in English, but Scottish accents can be difficult for Americans to decipher -- sometimes wrongly spell the Scotch drink as "whiskey.") Through Harry, he comes to appreciate a fine malt and shows a real skill at identifying flavors and regions. It leads him to learn that a very rare cask of the stuff is about to be auctioned off for a lot of money -- and to the idea that an angels' share of it would do a lot to help a community-payback gang get back on their feet.

"The Angels' Share" is very tough to watch at times. Not just when we see flashbacks to Robbie's violent past -- it's also hard to watch him being confronted with it, having no excuse to make. Paul Brannigan makes his debut playing the protagonist, and it's clear his own life went into his thinking on the role -- he was a Glasgow thug himself before he became an actor. A veteran director and a new talent tell an age-old story in a fresh way here. And the result rightfully won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.