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Some talented young action film directors of this new Millennium seem to survive only by making increasingly derivative parodies of genre hits that are already parodies. In the case of Paul W. S. Anderson, the movies in question are cookie-cutter epics about zombies in space (Event Horizon, Pandorum) and a commercially popular cookie-cutter zombie franchise now in its 4th iteration (Resident Evil). Paul Anderson's first film is a far more exciting and adventurous crime story with fantasy overtones, a movie that celebrates stylish 80s action films by directors like John McTiernan. Severin's sharp new Blu-ray of Shopping shows us a young and ambitious director delivering the slick visuals of big-budgeted thrillers on a much smaller budget. Anderson did his best to assemble a commercially viable product, nabbing Sadie Frost of Francis Coppola's Dracula and pairing her with the freshly-minted new actor Jude Law. The two actors would soon marry.
In a slightly undefined England where neither the police nor criminals carry guns, convicted thief Billy (Law) is released from prison and finds that his family has thrown him out. He immediately returns to his lifestyle of car theft, joy riding, rock 'n' roll and "ram-raiding": smashing into retail stores with a stolen car, and grabbing merchandise before the law arrives. Billy carries on a strong but non-sexual romance with Jo (Sadie Frost, reminding us a bit of a young Judy Davis), a wild-eyed hell-raiser perfectly happy to spend her life destroying cars and property. Billy enjoys celebrity status as the most daring of the thieves, but the hip-hop teen crime underworld is changing. Tommy (Sean Pertwee) has organized the anarchy into a profit-making enterprise, enticing smash 'n' grabbers to steal for him, and to take part of their pay in drugs instead of money. Billy not only challenges Tommy's ego, he's a threat to his activities: Billy's wild stunts bring out the cops, and hit retail targets that Tommy has already staked out.
"This used to be a beautiful boutique," Jo says, regarding the steel shutters and security cameras installed in an upscale clothing store. "Why'd they have to spoil it with all this security equipment?" The dialogue is copied almost verbatim from William Goldman's script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Fortunately the rest of Shopping is much more original. Aided by fine cinematography by Tony Imi (Nate and Hayes, Enemy Mine) and excellent stunt work, Paul Anderson re-imagines real crime headlines as an escapist fantasy. The industrial north of England was plagued by hundreds of robberies in which kids used stolen vehicles as battering rams. Anderson's script has little to do with reality and instead imagines a trendy underworld of wildly costumed punks engaging in these crimes largely out of existential malaise.
The movie is centered on Billy's crazy personality. The young man cannot imagine doing anything else. He lives for kicks, whether it's walking through traffic daring vehicles to run him over or joyriding in stolen cars. He and Jo have no difficulty swiping BMWs and Porsches. Although they worship fine cars, the vehicles always end up maliciously destroyed instead of merely abandoned. The contradiction becomes clear when Billy, Jo and his confederates go into action -- they claim to despise materialism yet have based their lives on stealing material goods that they don't even get to enjoy. They destroy an entire department store when their car sets off a sprinkler system, and their only loot is one blouse and a teakettle.
Although Billy lives in a wrecked caravan (trailer) dumped in an industrial wasteland, he and Jo always have fresh hairstyles. They smoke and drink plenty of instant coffee, but nobody seems to need to eat anything. We see no source of income. More interesting is their personal relationship. Jo and Billy seem contemptuous of sex, and when Jo finally approaches him for a kiss, he backs off with an odd remark about unsafe sex. Does a criminal lifestyle make one impotent, or does Billy's outrageous risk-taking fulfill his sexual needs?
The movie's details edge toward the fantastic. The robbers never seem in a hurry and the cops never seem organized in any way that might slow them down. Guest star Jonathan Pryce is a frustrated police official who alludes to not having enough power to oppose the punks' reign of terror (which is what it is). Why he just doesn't pay off a snitch like real cops do, we don't know. For that matter, we wonder why nobody references the security cameras that appear to capture plenty of perpetrator images. The cops see Jo and Billy face to face in a stolen Porsche, yet seem unable to arrest them a few hours later when they're sleeping. I'd get myself a new police force. Shopping is clearly an exercise in style, not a semi-docu about real crimes.
Besides Jonathan Pryce, the production could only afford a day or two each with Sean Bean (as an established fence) and singer-actress Marianne Faithfull. Launching a feature film was so difficult in England that the producers had to work every commercial angle available.
Action fans are going to like the movie, which uses no CGI in its impressive car chases. These are filmed with the metal-crunching impact familiar from Australian car-fiend cinema from the '70s and '80s. The emphasis favors character over Mad Max overstatement, but action fans who don't need to see phony Fast & Furious CGI baloney will be appreciative. Much of Shopping was filmed at night on slick streets with shiny cars ... it's all very attractive.
In the disc extras director Anderson and producer Bolt allude to the fact that Shopping didn't make much money and may have had difficulties in the UK because theater owners were afraid of encouraging more copycat crimes. This disc release is the first time it has been seen uncut in the United States. The film did kick-start Anderson's career, just for being such an impressive production made for so little money (the figure of two million pounds is mentioned). With American film companies always on the lookout for UK talent, Shopping did the trick. And you won't believe how young Jude Law looks!
Severin's Blu-ray of Shopping is a snappy encoding of this extremely good-looking English film; I saw a few minutes of it on IFC the other night and their copy just didn't have the same surface appeal. Colors are bright and the sharp images are consistently attractive. Anderson explains in his feature commentary that he and producer Bolt plowed their fees back into the film to hire a helicopter for four hours, allowing them to obtain a number of impressive aerial shots of refineries and other industrial locations. The movie begins with shots of a flame-topped refinery tower, which Anderson says is a direct nod to another of his 1980s hero directors, Ridley Scott.
Anderson and Bolt also appear in a new Severin featurette docu to discuss the film and Anderson's background. A standard-def featurette from 1994 gives us EPK interviews with the stars as well. Severin tops off its attractive package with the original trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Shopping Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.