Friday 21 September 2012

Inner city pressure: "Tower Block"

As suggested by a poster employed as a background prop at a key juncture, there's a crossover of creative talent between the grimly effective thriller Tower Block and last month's Cockneys vs. Zombies. Both these films succeed in getting to the spirit of a place, but the buoyant, resilient East End established in the earlier production is here replaced by the tired, depressed, worn-down milieu of an inner city tower block where a few residents hunker down, awaiting relocation ahead of the building's planned demolition. With admirable economy, writer James Moran and directors James Nunn and Ronnie Thompson sketch a world of peeling paint and microwave meals, where fights break out unprovoked in the hallway and single mothers, seeking relief from their travails, leave their babies at home unattended to go out on the lash. (Operating at this budgetary level, the film's grunge is altogether more credible than that of the Weinstein-sponsored, Brad Pitt-starring Killing Them Softly.)

After an opening act in which a cynical developer (Christopher Fulford) lets slip to a contractor he'd do anything to get rid of these hangers-on, all hell breaks loose when an unseen sniper in a neighboring block opens fire; the residents - who've barely exchanged hellos, save when snaffling money or drugs off one another - are repelled beyond their front doors and out into the corridor, where a community of sorts is formed by default. Given the cramped confines, you could see it as Hitchcock's Lifeboat reconfigured for Broken Britain, though one suspects Moran's primary influences are more recent: there are elements of such puzzle-pictures as 1997's Cube, as the survivors try to figure some way out of their now-boobytrapped building, and 2004's Saw, with the second-act realisation the principals are being punished for a past failure to act.

The limited means puts the emphasis back on the writing and acting, which holds up, even if none of the leads are allowed to leap off the screen as they did in the comic-book universe of C-vs.-Z. Ralph Brown is typically dependable as the ex-squaddie who's good for a fist fight but proves helpless when it comes to strategy; Sheridan Smith is believable as the heroine in a Bruce Willis vest, whose promising new relationship the sniper has ended, bloodily; and there's surprising and skilful work from Jack O'Connell, humanising a nasty, opportunistic little shit of a character with a few well-placed dabs of humour. It may just be too circumscribed to be an Attack the Block-like breakout - though it makes fewer mistakes, and would work particularly well on TV, from where it draws much of its cast - but it absolutely makes the most of its limitations. Compare it to 1997's Downtime - itself rather optimistically billed as "Die Hard in a tower block", and featuring Paul McGann as an asthmatic copper - and you can see how British genre filmmaking has taken a quantum leap forwards in terms of confidence and, most crucially, basic competence.

Tower Block opens in selected cinemas from today.

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