“Don’t get caught”
I don’t know what it is about Paul W.S. Anderson, but I very rarely dislike his flicks no matter the critical consensus or fandom drubbings. He isn’t the best director out there but he has created some interesting vehicles despite it—enough to accept the fact that Hollywood studios will continue giving him money to make them. And even though it’s a far cry from the video game adaptations serving as his claim to fame, Anderson’s debut Shopping feels right at home alongside Resident Evil and Mortal Kombat. From the electronica-fueled hip-hop soundtrack to the close-ups cutting to high-speed action, he likes placing us inside environments of sensory overload. It’s pretty cool that his quiet-ish character study beginnings foreshadowed exactly what was to come of his career.
This film about street punks joyriding and “ramraiding” night and day as a means of surviving their poverty-stricken town could easily have devolved into a Fast and the Furious quest for redemption and it appears as though it will for a little while. That’s what happens when you introduce just-released-from-prison Billy (Jude Law) as a smartass who lives for the thrill or danger opposite the more hardened Tommy (Sean Pertwee) who enjoys the same exact things except with a love for money piled on top. One crashes cars into department store displays for the excitement—taking souvenirs for utilitarian purposes such as a new kettle for home. The other steals in bulk to sell everything for profit to his fence Venning (Sean Bean).
So we wait for the showdown pitting youthful exuberance against cutthroat aggression knowing it’s the only real conflict since Billy relationship with Officer Conway (Jonathan Pryce) isn’t based in animosity as much as unwanted surrogate father/son drama. Someone needs to supply such a willingness to hope for a better future now that Billy’s actual father has had enough. But this twenty-something hooligan can’t reconcile his good nature with his adrenaline junkie cravings. He’s still optimistic about things working out and refuses to leave his hometown despite best friend/wannabe girlfriend Jo’s (Sadie Frost) imploring as a result. So the only means to become the legend of London underground lore is to “beat” Tommy at their common game. The truth, though, is that Billy’s fighting no one but himself.
What follows is therefore a surprisingly poignant portrait of life on the streets in the back alleys of London. To survive is to steal because the only other option is finding a boring job at a desk like their parents. So they boost cars during high school, make a name within the “profession,” and graduate to stealing heavy cars for impact and pricey cars for speed to take what they want and never get caught. But as Billy and Tommy press the throttle to the floor, Jo attempts being the voice of reason. Don’t get me wrong, she loves the life and would do it for the rest of her days if she could, but the heat’s turning up as the danger ratchets higher with every passing minute.
If there’s something holding it back from being a great movie it would probably by the era in which it was made. Despite being a 1994 release, the movie does feel like an 80s staple via acting and melodrama. The budget’s well spent, though, as cars are torched and property vandalized—a theft of a store around the halfway point shows the sprinklers going off and ruining everything beneath them save Law’s hair under his umbrella. Not watching the full chases helps cut costs too and it’s okay because action isn’t the main goal. Anderson supplies just enough to understand Billy’s psychological make-up, toying with his pursuers in full knowledge he’ll be pulling away shortly. As long as ego doesn’t get in the way, nothing can stop him.
But that’s what Shopping ultimately comes down to—a drive to be the best. Everyone on the street knows Billy earns that title and in all honesty Tommy shouldn’t care. Like the man says himself, Tommy runs a business. It’s a business he thinks too highly of but a business just the same. There’s no time to let personal vendettas or pride get in the way and he doesn’t. The same honesty of character applies to Billy. Letting him cash-in is never an option because of who he is and where he comes from. He misses his father and loves Jo, but he’s too broken to mend whatever space exists between both. He has a death wish and sadly those around him stick close despite knowing that truth.
It’s a great turn for Law—his first main leading role. It’s fun to watch it alongside his more recent Dom Hemingway as similar psyches are involved despite differing genres. He’s come a long way and yet the vulnerability he hides behind a smile here is Law at his finest. Frost supplies a nice counterpart—the unrequited chemistry drawing off their real life affair (the two would later marry)—even if her role isn’t allowed the same depth as her male counterparts. Fraser James‘ Be Bop has potential to be another voice of reason, but Anderson decides to keep him on the fringes as a “yes man” alongside youngster Monkey (Daniel Newman) instead. And Pertwee is fantastic regardless of his tough guy gang leader fitting its stereotypical description.
What won me over, though, is Billy’s ghost-like journey walking alone. All those other characters provide him sounding boards to act tough and cool against and it’s fun to watch because he does infectious charm like few others, but his introspective looks by himself are what grab you. They force you to understand this isn’t another action-packed adventure without stakes where good guys win and bad guys suffer before respawning and trying again. Shopping doesn’t really have any good guys. The closest you get is Jo but she’s too much in love to stop falling down the same path towards jail as the rest. Billy could be good; he could turn things around. But how often does that happen? Anderson knows and he pulls no punches showing it.