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STUDIO: Severin Films
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 106 Minutes
- Audio Commentary with director Paul W.S. Anderson and producer Jeremy Bolt
- Featurette with Paul W.S. Anderson and Jeremy Bolt
- EPK featuring interviews with Jude Law, Sadie Frost, and Paul W.S. Anderson
- Theatrical Trailer
- Severin Trailers
Right before he made Mortal Kombat, the world’s premier non-Uwe Boll video game movie director gave us a Grand Theft Auto adaptation… years before the Everyman was beating prostitutes with a baseball bat from the comfort of his living room. Here it is in all its uncut glory.
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Writer: Paul W.S. Anderson
Cast: Sadie Frost, Jude Law, Sean Pertwee, Marianne Faithful, Sean Bean, and Jonathan Pryce.
Britain, some time in the near future. Billy (Law) likes to go “shopping.” That is to say, he steals cars for kicks and crashes them into shops so he can steal whatever he likes. And that’s what he does with his Northern Irish partner Jo (Frost) right after he gets out of jail. Things have changed since Billy was inside though. The police, led by Conway (Pryce) have stepped up their war on ram-raiding, a crime-wave threatening to become a national epidemic. It’s hard enough for local gangster Tommy (Pertwee) to make a dishonest living without rogues like Billy and Jo jeopardizing his “business” by bringing unwanted heat on him. Can the impulsive pair stay one step ahead of the law and Tommy’s gang, or will they crash and burn in a ball of reckless abandon?
The 90’s: what do they make us think of? Tony Blair and Oasis vs. Blur for the U.K. The Fresh Prince for the Yanks. CGI Dewbacks on Tatooine for George Lucas. GoldenEye on the Nintendo 64 for everyone. Not bad, all things considered (nu-metal is best glossed over.) The sugary 80’s were the subject of the last major nostalgia fad in pop culture. In the mid-to-late 00’s, this threatened to move on to the more hopeful, tangy 90’s when the band Klaxons prompted a generation of skinny, middle class English kids to go out dancing in naff looking tracksuits. We could’ve been all set for a Human Traffic style 90’s dance resurgence, but it was just a blip and the more evergreen indie rock approach of Converse, girls’ jeans, and John Hughes references made a swift return. Perhaps, it wasn’t time yet. Perhaps, we haven’t left sufficient space between us and that decade to fully romanticize it as we have done the 80’s.
If Shopping is anything to go by, that dog may yet have its day. Paul W.S. Anderson’s (Resident Evil, Death Race) debut feature is an awkward yet entertaining amalgam of outsider angst and cartoonish violence. Although it was picked up by Roger Corman for U.S. distribution – a car chase enthusiast if ever there was one – this is far from an exploitation picture. A pre “W.S.” Paul Anderson, who also scripted, defines his backdrop of sprawling urban decay clearly from the outset and the resulting collection of “MAD FER IT” rave clubs and rotten tower blocks fits his extreme sports directorial style well. However, it also hints at a social awareness bubbling underneath the grimy surface. There’s just a hint of not-too-distant dystopia in this increasingly media savvy world – an opening helicopter shot of bellowing factories is a deliberate nod to another northern Englishman’s work, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Instead of plumping for the obvious option of making Jonathan Pryce’s Police figurehead the de facto face of Big Brother (à la John Hurt in V for Vendetta), an army of security cameras represent The Man’s eternal scrutinizing gaze. It’s just Orwellian enough to capture the paranoid flavour required for a pseudo-sci fi crime flick like this, not to mention a nice time-stamp; cinder-block sized mobile phones will make less forgiving viewers chuckle, but they’re a cute little window into this enjoyably neo-retro world.
Just like in Death Proof, this is a place where iPods (or then-futuristic handheld games consoles, in this case) and regular, immobile payphones can co-exist. Technological shortcomings here might be the unavoidable effect of the film’s aging process rather than a deliberate stylistic move, but the effect is much the same. The film actually benefits from things like the police’s über-boxy squad cars which, thanks to the ravages of time, have acquired a paradoxically futuristic quality. There’s nothing sleek or shiny about this environment except for the barely-glimpsed, luxurious shopping malls. This is the Commodore 64 chic of square edges and Vivienne Westwood meets early Prodigy tailoring. If the lush surfaces of Minority Report are more your thing, all the acid house tunes and bright colours might make your eyes and/or ears vomit. However, fans of Hackers will feel right at home in a world that resembles the sphincter of Mega-City One, a melting pot that makes the Mars Colony of Total Recall seem exotic.
Its criminal inhabitants are equally well realized, if not exactly subtle or original. As is their youthful disaffection, for that matter. This is precisely Anderson’s problem, though; he can’t quite decide what his film should be. Our attention is divided between an urban war movie and romantic drama without ever getting as much as we need from either to hold the sum together. The film’s identity crisis is summed up in the indecision over who its main antagonist is. On paper, Jonathan Pryce’s policeman is the obvious answer. He’s the stiff-upper-lipped suit, a tea-drinking Agent Smith without the sunglasses (it wouldn’t be British to wear shades indoors!) It seems only right that he should be the one getting his hands dirty bringing Billy and Jo’s kind to justice. Equally, it makes sense that Tommy (a delightfully maniacal Sean – Dog Soldiers – Pertwee) should serve as anti-hero for the rebel gang. A sort of Londoner Lando Calrissian, a man to have in your corner in a fight… as long as you don’t turn your back on him. Flipping this dynamic slightly is brave of Anderson and it might have worked if he hadn’t split the difference quite so much. Conway announces himself as a major thorn in Billy’s side early on, only to disappear for most of the second act along with any real sense of narrative thrust. Then it’s Tommy’s turn to glower and devour everything around him. After failing to recruit Billy as the joyriding Luke to his Vader, Tommy chases him around with a baseball bat and tries it on with Jo, who’s becoming increasingly frustrated by the almost asexual Billy (more on that later.)
Billy and Jo’s rambling, go-nowhere mantra is certainly reflected by the film’s drifting through-line, but that’s too easy a defence to let them off with it. This is supposed to be the criminal underworld. Fast cars, fast women, fast everything. It’s not as heavy on the drugs as you might expect (a deliberate move to reflect the kids’ “innocence”) and this is definitely not a forerunner to the Lock, Stock‘s of this world that would arrive some years later. Billy, Jo, Be Bop (Fraser James) and Monkey (Danny Newman) aren’t in it for the wealth or power represented by Tommy and Venning (a cameoing Sean Bean.) They’re in it for the thrill of sticking two fingers up to John Law, yet they mostly just sit around and mope about their broken homes and how hard it is trying to make ends meet. It’s a bit like Skins meets Mad Max, though not nearly as exciting as that should be. This mob are supposed to be The Ex-Presidents on wheels instead of surfboards, although they show little of the adrenaline they’re supposed to be such junkies for. It’s impossible for us to buy the allure of their intoxicating, breakneck lives if it’s actually pretty humdrum.
Although Jude Law is billed second, Shopping is definitely his film. He dominates most scenes and everything of worth runs through him, a quite remarkable achievement considering this was his first major role. Billy’s smart-mouthed aggression is a good fit for Law, though he doesn’t quite hit the tough-guy notes needed of him. Unfortunately, he’s more at home with the somber, sensitive beats, something Anderson’s script gives him less of. And those it does provide are too stilted for even an actor as dependable as him to wring anything truly special out of. If, for example, Billy’s subplot with his estranged father were more than a glorified aside, the film may have found some much-needed emotional depth. Law’s cold, mannequin-esque good looks are an ideal match for Billy’s youthful distance. He watches riots and attacks on police not with demented glee, but the almost impossibly apathetic shrug of a teenage know-it-all. Jo shares Billy’s cynicism and biting tongue, but she’s got a warmth and wisdom that balances the pair out nicely. Being from Northern Ireland myself, I’ve always been particularly interested in foreigners’ attempts at our accent. Part American, part pixie leprechaun, Jo is at most 40% Belfast; and 30% of that is because it only takes her a few seconds to mention kneecapping when asked to talk about her homeland; no prizes for guessing Guinness is her favourite drink. The rest makes Richard Gere’s legendarily poor lilt from The Jackal seem naturalistic. “It’s naht MAY prablam, Tahmy”, indeed.
Otherwise, Jo is an enjoyably free-spirited Bonnie to Billy’s Clyde. Frost convinces as the little girl growing bored of anarchy and her attempt to drag Billy out of the gutter with her is a window into more rewarding terrain. Giving Billy a Northern Irish companion to play off at that time works wonderfully. Jo casts a more discerning eye on Billy and co’s aimless shenanigans having grown up in the more substantial, politically motivated violence of the still prescient Troubles. She isn’t just there to lend a bit of Emerald twinkle (although there’s that, too.) This arc brings to mind Re-Animator‘s homosexuality/masturbation metaphor, itself a riff on Frankenstein. In Stuart Gordon’s film, the young medical student Dan must choose between a life without women, as represented by the all-male world of wannabe creator Dr. Herbert West, and the normality of his loving girlfriend, Megan. Billy finds himself in a similar predicament. Kicked out of his parents’ house and living in a ratty caravan filled with his childhood toys (his only honest possessions), he’s mired in a fruitless, juvenile existence surrounded by angry young men. He’s getting too old for this one-upmanship and Jo represents an out from all that. Whether or not he’ll come of age or come a-cropper is a solid basis, but the writing’s on the wall along with the graffiti far too long for there to be any shocks around the bend.
Anderson’s (under)world of ultra-violent lager louts and artful soap-dodgers feels suitably British, something apparent from the influence of 2000 AD comics on its gritty palette. Unlike the exaggerated yobs of Green Street, these young men and women of a deliberately unnamed, composite city are simply the product of their environment – a country with alcohol and violent crime problems confined not only to football terraces. They’re scared and confused, fighting a losing battle against hormones and encroaching maturity. It’s a game against organized crime and The Law they can never hope to win, something Jo’s fondness for a hand-held racer tips its hat to. For a group of no-hopers like them, smashing and grabbing whatever loot they can is the natural next step. And they’ll persevere for as long as they can get away with it. For some, this will only cost them whatever they hot-wired earlier that night and maybe a mild case of whiplash. Others will find themselves running out of “continues” sooner than they imagine.
Severin Films have packaged the movie with artwork that deliberately blends it into the rest of Anderson’s C.V. more smoothly than every other poster associated with it. It’s a superior disc on the technical side, rescuing a film from 1994 that could easily look like a soggy VHS with some rich visuals and 5.1 that makes the most of its impressive period soundtrack (Orbital, Stereo MC’s.) Trailers for other Severin releases including Birdemic, BMX Bandits, Devolved, and Hardware are also included. Sadly, a handful of interviews with the key cast and talent are more useful for illustrating how young they all were when the film was made than anything.
A new featurette that runs over 20 minutes featuring Anderson and his producer, Jeremy Bolt, repeats much of the terrific new audio commentary that’s easily the best of the special features. As well as the usual anecdotes and trivia (Frost turned down Sandra Bullock’s role in Demolition Man to make this! Ewan McGregor was in the frame for Billy!), Anderson discusses his influences and experiences on the film openly and honestly. There’s rarely a lull, especially when elucidating its trailblazing cultural context. Shopping might not be a representative snapshot of early 90’s British youth, but it was a fresh approach to film in the U.K. at a time when more austere dramas and kitchen sink talk fests were the norm. For this pioneering approach, its financiers Film 4 (who went on to produce Shallow Grave and Trainspotting shortly afterward) deserve credit for trusting such young filmmakers with the financial and moral responsibility of a then hot button social issue. Even if it is rough as a sandpaper blanket in places, the respect Anderson’s “cyberpunk western” warrants cuts it a lot of slack.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars