Most of you haven’t heard of Shank. On some level, that’s probably a good thing. Though low-budget can sometimes produce remarkable results, Shank is a film which suffers from a feeling of inexperience, overexertion, and disjointedness. Set in a depression-rattled London in 2015, Shank follows a ragtag group of young men who are trying to earn enough money to do…something. It’s never made clear exactly why they need to raise the money to go wherever they’re going, and this fact becomes irrelevant when Junior’s (Kedar Williams-Stirling) brother, Rager (Ashley “Bashy” Thomas — the UK rap artist), is murdered by rival gang leader, Tugz (Jerome Holder). His dreams crushed, Junior sets off on a journey to get revenge, bringing along his family of gang members: Kickz (Adam Deacon), Craze (Michael Socha, who looks suspiciously like Jake Gyllenhaal), and Sweet Boy (Jan Uddin).
There are several things that I appreciate about what this film tries to achieve. First, though I recognize the plot is a bog standard murder-revenge in a gang setting, the film’s almost mythic take on this “journey” is fascinating. I couldn’t place the mythic references, but it almost felt as though the overarching plot had been taken from or was courting an epic of some kind. There’s no direct-to-the-source aspect here. Junior must hunt down the rival gang by bargaining with other gangs in order to convince them to provide help (information, etc.), meeting various challenges (including a dog fight, unfortunately), and so on. From the moment Junior enters the murder-revenge plot, the entirety of the story is coded as a mythic journey, right down to the siren-like quality of its handful of female characters (of which there are three, though they actually prove helpful). The approach is not wholly successful, mind, as it is bogged down by the film’s other weakness, but the attempt to present these elements gave me the impression that there was more to this film than a bunch of young men cursing, screaming, and causing mayhem.
Second, I will give Shank credit for its diversity. I don’t know if this film was supported in any way by the UK government in order to push for diversity in the arts, but some have claimed this to be true in the various reviews, usually as a way to whinge about the state of the UK government. Though the cast is almost exclusively male, it is a remarkably mixed cast; its members have ancestry in places like the Dominican Republic, Bangladesh, and so on. Some aspect of this is to be expected, I imagine. Since Shank is a gangster film, it must suffer from a certain degree of stereotyping, even in the UK. In any case, that the film’s cast is so diverse is a major plus in its favor, even if it doesn’t necessarily pass the Bechdel test (actually, it might do so by accident).
These are, unfortunately, the only purely redeeming qualities about this film. Shank is a monstrous mess. Though the pacing is decent enough, much of the film’s characterizations are unsympathetic, irritating, or both. Much of the film involves the main cast yelling and cursing at one another, so much so that it is sometimes difficult to figure out what is actually going on or to appreciate the jokes being made. There are few moments when the script opts for subtlety. Junior broods for most of the film; Williams-Stirling doesn’t seem to have been given much direction beyond “look angry all the time.” Some of the older actors show a little more depth, but this seems entirely accidental, as their characters are two-dimensional at best. Perhaps the most irritating aspect of the main characters is their incessant need to posture. The trivia notes on IMDB suggest that the filmmakers spent considerable time trying to get the language correct by workshopping the script at local schools. What they apparently didn’t consider was how this might translate into a narrative space; they seem to have opted for a grating, endless repetition of the same behaviors without enough of the lower-register elements of everyday life. The scene that violates this the most involves Junior and his crew meeting the female gang for the first time; what follows is a 5-minute long insult fest in which everyone tries to out-dominate the other for no apparent purpose. This is later followed by a bizarre hookup scene where apparently everyone forgot all the horrible things that were said to them by the very individual with whom they are not shagging. The following day, the women decide to help Junior get his revenge by calling in a favor with another male-dominated gang. The film provides a reason, but it feels arbitrary and meaningless in the end. It’s this level of overbearingness and narrative inconsistency that makes empathy difficult and immersion impossible.
There are other issues with Shank that deserve mentioning. It’s unclear to me why this film needed to be set in a dystopian future where everything has gone to pot, as much of what the film covers give little indication that anything of the sort has actually happened. Shank‘s minuscule budget means the visual landscape can’t give an accurate depiction of the world in which it purports to be set. The sets are really just random streets of London stripped of pedestrians. There’s no indication that anyone has to be in this part of the city for some reason or another, or that the city is destitute enough that law and order is now impossible. Indeed, aside from a handful of scenes where bartering camps, refuse, and homeless people are shown, there isn’t much indication that Shank is about much more than a reality that more or less exists. This makes it even more difficult to understand why Rager, Junior, and the rest of the Paper Chaserz (their gang’s name) are in London. Junior does tell us that the rich have bought off the police and kept to the “safe zones,” leaving everything else to the poor; those other zones have become crime-infested hell holes where anyone can die at any moment (this said while Junior casually walks through town, clearly incapable of really defending himself if someone were try to kill him). There’s likewise talk about government funds, but all of this is simply explained to the audience; it is never shown or demonstrated in any real way, and so what we see on the screen doesn’t match the world we’re told exists. The setting, in other words, is an unnecessary contrivance.
I could say much more about Shank, but I think it’s apparent what I think of it. Though I appreciate what it tries to do, I must be brutally honest in saying that it is an unmitigated failure of a film. Its setting is pointless, its dialogue and character development almost nonexistent, and its direction and acting questionable most of the time. What might have been an interesting commentary on gang culture through the extrapolative potential of science fiction is instead a thinly-veiled everyday gangster-beat-em-up film infested with bad characters. Skip this one if you can.
Overall: 1.5/5 (30%)
Inflated Grade: F (for weak characterization, poor setting, and poor direction)
Value: $1.50 (based on $10.50 max)
A (World) SFF Film Odyssey is an extension of my personal mission to watch and review every science fiction and fantasy film released in 2010. All of the non-US titles will be reviewed/discussed/maimed on the Skiffy and Fanty blog as part of the World SF Tour. The full list of titles (w/ links to posts) can be found here. You can find out more about this project here.
: To be honest, I cannot confirm if this is true. If someone can vouch for this assertion, please let me know. In the United States, African Americans appearing in gangster roles is treated almost like a necessity and without the glamour of white-oriented gangster groups such as the mafia.