Blu-ray Review: TOWER BLOCK

The new release from Shout! Factory is effective in its simplicity.

A friend of mine told me recently that a producer wanted him to change the villain in his script to be "more complicated," and that he was fighting to keep it simple. The current version has him as a single-minded man out for revenge, but this producer would prefer his revenge be a diversion for a bigger, more complicated plan (use Die Hard with a Vengeance's Simon as an example - right now, his villain just really wants to kill McClane, essentially, not rob the Federal Reserve). Hopefully my friend gets his way; I worry that it'll turn out like one of those convoluted blockbusters that Film Crit Hulk was talking about recently - why can't movies just be simple anymore? Not that I dislike complications (I think Die Hard 3 is the only solid sequel, in fact - and you know how much I love those nutty Saw flicks), but every now and then it's nice to see a movie that doesn't mind being a little straightforward.

And that's why I liked Tower Block a lot, and would recommend it to anyone who also can appreciate something "simple." The plot is fully explained on the back of the DVD/Blu-Ray (hitting US stores on Tuesday from Shout! Factory); the last remaining residents of a soon to be demolished London high-rise tenement find themselves targeted by a sniper perched on the adjacent building, and must band together to get to safety. As the runtime nears its end and we still haven't learned the identity of the sniper, it's clear that we're not going to be treated to too many twists and turns - no diversion, no over-reaching plot, and (thank Christ), no "You've been watching what we plan to be a trilogy" cliffhanger ending. In fact (spoilers in this and the next paragraph!), the movie goes a step further and doesn't even explains the motive of its killer - we recognize him, but why exactly he's doing what he's doing is left unclear in the film. On the commentary track, writer James Moran reveals his intentions and seems confused as to why directors James Nunn & Ronnie Thompson had it taken out (if anything it hurts the film a bit, as it otherwise doesn't fit at all with what little we do know about him), so score one for listening to commentaries, I guess.

But even without that bit of information (can we consider it "canon" if it's not in the film?* Let's vote on it!), I was all for how simple it all was. Early on we meet the building's owner, and he seems like a bit of a prick, so it's not unthinkable to assume he's the real villain and has paid someone to kill all of the residents for whatever reason, with the opening sequence (a murder in the building that the residents are too afraid to report on to the police) merely a red herring. There's also a nice guy among the group whom years of horror/thriller movies (such as, well, Saw II) had conditioned me to believe was a plant, working with the villain or villains and keeping an eye on things from the inside. But no, he's just a nice guy. In fact there were pretty much no "twists" of any sort throughout the film with regards to its characters - everyone was who they appeared to be, and we didn't even get the tired cliche of a traitor character who fucks over our hero and/or the rest of the group to save his own skin (something that almost never works for said traitor; See: Harry Ellis).

Instead, we get to focus on the situation itself, which plays out like any number of siege movies (attempts to call for help or escape tend to go awry) but with the simplicity actually adding to the tension. Without the need to try to figure out a puzzle box narrative, we can spend a little more time with the characters (none of them particularly interesting, to be fair, with the exception of Kurtis (Jack O'Connell) as a surprisingly helpful "thug" type), making it harder to tell who would die first or last. Our heroine is obvious from the start, but everyone else is fair game, and thankfully the sniper doesn't have an age minimum - even the 13-year-old son of one of the residents is a potential victim, as a much younger child got killed (off-screen) during the initial attack. On the commentary, Moran explains that you can NOT show a child that young being shot on-screen, so I guess he hasn't seen Assault on Precinct 13 - which might be for the best as despite the somewhat similar scenario (diverse group pinned down in one location by outside threat) the two films are much different. A fan of the film might be prone to tossing in obnoxious references and shoutouts to the film, which would only serve to make me wish I was watching it instead.

So kudos for keeping it simple. After seeing my favorite movie (Halloween) get tainted by its mythology driven sequels (it's hard enough trying to forget Laurie is his sister, but until it was ret-conned I had to try to forget he was acting under influence by a Druid cult as well), it's nice to see that some folks still have the idea John Carpenter and Debra Hill (originally) had in that film, along with several others from the era - the more "stuff" you toss into the movie, the more you take away from the scariness of the situation. Any minute spent on a guy explaining things is a minute that could be spent on scaring the audience and/or building tension. A movie doesn't need to be plotless, but there's nothing wrong with the villain having a pretty straightforward motive, either. I may like the Saw films a lot, but they completely fail as "horror" movies; none of them were the least bit scary (save for maybe a jump or two in the first one), because even if you cared about someone's survival (rare since Jigsaw's targets were kind of scummy by design) any danger they found themselves in would quickly be over as we were treated to new reveals and flashbacks. But here, despite the overlong timeframe (it takes place over an entire weekend - reducing it to a couple hours would have been even more intense, I think), the spare plotting keeps the focus where it should be - worrying whether or not our heroes would make it out alive.

*Incidentally, the Die Hard With A Vengeance novelization explains why Zeus hates cops so much - one accidentally killed his brother (the father of the two nephews he watches) years ago. Since reading the book I've always had that in mind when watching the film, but never found out if it was something from the script that was cut or merely the invention of the novelization's author.