by Barry Meyer
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It’s the year 2015 and London is in a state of anarchy. The police have given up, the government no longer cares, and the wealthy have moved away, leaving gangs of angry and disenfranchised kids to fight for their own lives. Just as in 2002s City of God , poverty has driven even the nicest of kids to the extremes of violence and crime. Only the kids of Shank aren’t battling for drugs or guns. They need food. Everyone needs food.
The story centers around a young boy named Junior (Kedar Williams Stirling) who’s part of a gang called the Paper Chaserz. They’re a fresh bunch of boys who avoid violence at any cost, and who stick to “hustlin” people out of money (or “paper”) and stealing “munchies” to feed themselves or to sell for more money. Of course, in this urban Lord of the Flies world, being the only non-violent gang in the tough streets of London is tough going. It isn’t long before they have a run in with one of the most notorious gangs around — The SoulJahz — and running away won’t save them. Junior’s big brother and leader of the Paper Chaserz is murdered by the skull-mask wearing rivals, leaving the remaining Chaserz lost and defeated. The death of his mentor and brother leaves Junior with a dilemma — should he stick to his brother’s philosophy of non-violence (he dies standing his ground) or seek vengeance for his brother’s death.
Breakout director Mo Ali does a wicked job bringing this story of hopelessness and misery alive. He’s a veteran of over 60 music videos, and he utilizes the short, fast video age style to give his debut flick the energy to lift it out of the heavy, sometimes dull and dreary world of other films that depict a not so happy fuzzy future. The world of Shank is dystopic, a bleak and impoverished landscape of grit and pain. But with the colorful settings and upbeat music and vibrant performances, it all seems sorta fun. It’s more a fantasy world than a realistic one, like depicted in City of God. The gangs, much like in The Warriors, are frightening but oh so cool, with names like The Slaughter Gurlz, The Strap Set and The Somalis. The Paper Chaserz, themselves. are much like Fagin’s gang of orphans in Oliver Twist, all witty and jocular, and very hip. Each member has an ego that’s too big to share a room, and they know how to push each others buttons to the point of kicking each others asses. But when anyone else dares to step too close, they know they need to protect their “fam.”
Shank is a fun flick to watch. It reminded me so much of the 70s coming-of-age movies I enjoyed, where an innocent kid gets caught up in a situation that seems overwhelming, threatening to consume them, until they find the strength to pull through. There’s always that simple lesson they learn — the hard way — that changes them from a innocent child into a wiser young adult. This is the turmoil that Junior finds himself. Life with big brother was good. Even though the outside world was hard and bleak, Junior was protected and happy. He walks through the world with a youthful ignorance of the reality that surrounds him. Rager may think he’s preparing Junior to live in this world, or maybe move beyond it, but — like in any decent After School Special — kid brother’s big lesson comes only after Rager is killed, and he is forced to learn to fend for himself.
It’s a well worn story, for sure. But, if it’s played right, it works. And Shank works greatly. Scriptwriter Paul Van Carter draws characters that are rich and enjoyable (and frightening if they’re the bad guys) and the plot is fairly solid. It drags at points where Junior struggles with his loss of innocence, often buzz killing every pleasurable moment for his fellow gang members by constantly reminding them that they are on a quest for revenge. Mo Ali checks any slip up by ratcheting the pace up with high energy action, splashes of tee shirt style graphics and catchy tunes.
Shank is a car full of teen angst, barreling through the night time urban landscape with its headlights off and the radio blasting. Think City of God played by the kids from Skins.
Barry Meyer Barry Meyer was born to the world as the first scientifically produced Cathode Tube baby. He’s a film critic, videographer, editor, and writer, residing in Jamestown, NY.
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