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Case Number 17970: Small Claims Court

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Shank (2009)

TLA Releasing // 2009 // 89 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // December 23rd, 2009

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Tom Becker likes his shanks browned with a touch of rosemary.

Editor's Note

Our review of Shank (2010), published September 3rd, 2010, is also available.

The Charge

Two worlds. Three lives. One love.

The Case

British teen Cal (Wayne Virgo) spends his time running with his violent gang, getting high, assaulting strangers, riding around in his cool car, and in his quieter moments, having unsafe sex with anonymous men he meets on the Internet. After one such encounter, he bashes the poor fellow in the head, leaving the guy with a fractured nose. Scott (Garry Summers), the bashee, is a college professor, and Olivier (Marc Laurent) is his student.

One day, after a shopping expedition, Olivier encounters Cal and his thuggish friends, Jonno (Tom Bott) and Nessa (Alice Payne). They pummel the frightened Frenchman while Nessa films the assault with her cell phone. But then Cal has a change of heart and rescues Olivier, earning the scorn of the other gang members.

Soon, Cal and Olivier are in each other's arms, and Cal learns how to be tender and loving with another man. Unfortunately, his act of kindness has made him a pariah with that old gang of his, and they aren't about to forgive and forget.

For its first third or so, Shank is an exciting, electric fever dream, shot in a high-def video haze. Director Simon Pearce well captures Cal's drink-drug-bash-and-sex existence. His angst is understandable: closeted Cal is surrounded by good-looking, half-dressed punk boys and seems to have his eye on "best mate" Jonno, and there's enough homoerotic tension between the two that it seems Cal's fondest wish might be coming true.

This really wouldn't be a bad thing. Films about homoerotic longing amongst gang members are hardly revolutionary, but they are usually told from the "straight" guy's standpoint, with the infatuated one's revelation serving as the big emo scene followed by violence and/or death, with the crusher as the victim. See Rebel Without a Cause for a subtext-heavy blueprint.

Shank seems like it's going to upend that convention by giving us the story from the point of view of the gay guy—the self-destructive gay guy, at that. The deck is stacked a bit by offering up "rough" street guys who look more like Calvin Klein models than gutter trash. Well-fed, buffed up, shaved down, and surprisingly lacking tattoos or a wealth of piercings, they're prettier than Tyra Banks but not as tough. It's less interesting than having authentic-looking, down-market types, but an easier sell to its target audience. Had Pearce followed this through, Shank could have been edgier and more compelling than the typical gay soft-corer.

Unfortunately, Cal meets Olivier, and from there, things take a decidedly more awkward turn.

We never really get why Cal is drawn to this guy, whom he first sees strolling down the street carrying shopping bags before being pounced by the gang. Yeah, there's that whole, hackneyed "love at first sight" business, here represented by a hackneyed double jump cut of Cal's longing visage just before the attack. Frankly, it might have made more sense if Cal had had his epiphany during the beating. After Cal rescues Olivier from his friends, he gives the badly beaten Frenchie a ride home and then camps out in front of his apartment like a stalker.

The boys' budding romance is conveyed through scenes that Lifetime would reject as too sappy. We get erotic rubbing of suntan lotion as a prelude to foreplay; romantic interludes in the shower and the kitchen; scenes of Olivier dressing Cal up in new and trendy clothes; and the newly minted lovers enjoying a romantic day watching hot air balloons. Considering Cal's criminal past and the fact that he's hiding out from a murderous gang of his former friends, you'd think they might have done something to capitalize on the inherent tension rather than just push it aside; at least, you'd think they could have come up with a few original scenarios. When the expected crescendo of violence hits at the end—complete with a series of "terrible secret" reveals—the effect is diluted, in large part because the salvation/romance that we're supposed to be rooting for comes off as so forced and phony. Cal's transformation from feral rutter to domesticated weenie makes little sense since the object of his near-pathological affection is one-dimensional and in many ways, unappealing.

The biggest problem is the casting of Laurent as Olivier. In the commentary, much is made about his discomfort with the role, particularly scenes in which he has physical contact with Virgo's Cal, including, but not limited to, a fairly explicit sex scene. In the "making of," Laurent makes it a point of stating that he's never had sex with a man and so finds all this "challenging." It shows. I have no idea what Laurent's sexual orientation is (or that of the other actors), but he plays Olivier as a foppish stereotype, affected and annoying. For the film to work, the relationship between the two men has to work, and it just doesn't.

It's too bad, because there's a lot to like here. Wayne Virgo is quite good as the thuggish and conflicted Cal. He's completely believable and has great chemistry with co-stars, save for Laurent. Payne makes a hiss-worthy villainess—though it's a little unnerving that the only significant female character is drawn as such a shrewish sociopath—and Bott does fine as Cal's also-conflicted running buddy. As Cal's first victim, Summer has a number of scenes in which he discusses the encounter with an off-screen listener, and he does well with what he's got.

The direction by Simon Pearce—who was something like 21 when he made this—is promising, if uneven. He's great at creating urgency and a sense of danger, but quieter moments, not so much. The movie looks great, and TLA gives it a nice transfer for this disc. Audio is clear, though subtitles would have helped, since the heavy British accents occasionally made the dialogue a bit hard for these American ears to decipher.

The disc comes with a good slate of extras, including a commentary with the writer/producers and director; the "making of;" deleted scenes and outtakes; and the trailer.

The Verdict

Shank will likely appeal to a gay audience with little crossover possibility thanks to its themes and explicit sex scenes. A weak second lead keeps it from being the fresh and compelling film it might have been.

Not guilty, but barely.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 78

Perp Profile

Studio: TLA Releasing
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama
• Gay
• Independent

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Deleted Scenes
• Featurette
• Outtakes
• Trailer


• IMDb
• Official Site

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