After last week’s ultimate bust of “Guardian,” I was really looking forward to something a bit grittier in my next Independent Action-Adventure (Netflix Genre Code 11804). Something more visceral and raw. Something that had a real sense of American balls-to-the-wall action. …I settled for Canadian film “11 Blocks,” known in its native country as “Concrete: Gangs of Union City.” Neither title matters. This cinematic opus has two directors, both of whom undoubtedly sat and furiously masturbated to Frank Miller’s Sin City prior to filming. If you, dear reader, are looking for a movie where characters say things like “Rich on top…Poor on the bottom…No bread to soak up the blood,” without an ounce of irony, if you are looking for a film where literally every woman who is given lines in a prostitute, then it is time for 11 Blocks. It is time…for the “rest” of Netflix.
I was immediately drawn to the hip-hop soundtrack of the film’s opening. “Finally,” I exclaimed. “Here is a film for me and my generation!” The early references to Occupy Wall Street and the wage gap that function as a catalyst for the emergence of HORROR GANGS only furthered my excitement. Maybe Canadians understand the plight of the American lower-class better than we understand ourselves?
I was also struck with how the film wasted very little time getting us involved in the action. Right away, I was treated to main character Concrete, named thusly because his drunken father encased his feet in two blocks of concrete and forced him to punch his way out as some sort of lesson.
Fuck you, layered characters!
I was then introduced to his little sister, Bethany (or ‘Bug’ as she is affectionately named by her BFF), who is a prostitute because why not, unwilling to render her oral services for the price of twenty five dollars and a hit. “A hit of what,” you ask? Well:
The ‘glass cock’ is crystal meth, presumably. It wasn’t specified, but I’ve seen enough Breaking Bad to infer. The character offering this trade assured Bug that it would make the ‘real one’ taste better, because nothing says quality writing like explaining that only drugs will make your 5 1/2 Blocks (see what I did there?) palatable. In addition to all of the tasty morsels of filmmaking craftsmanship I mentioned above, the film waits no longer than ten minutes before it treats viewers to a full-on castration scene. “C’mon Carlito,” you roll your eyes and scoff. “There is no way they’d show something like that in an indie film.”
Well, here you go, non-believer.
Ten minutes into this goddamned masterpiece and somebody done got their balls chopped off. There was also a scene where the castrator, named Fingers (everybody has really easy to remember names in this film) stepped on the testicles in question, but I will not be showing that in this review. I have some standards. Also, spoilers. C’mon guys.
I realize that I haven’t talked much about the plot of this film. Here it is:
That text message is essentially the entire plot of 11 Blocks. And it appears in just over the first minute. I’ll clarify a bit, folks. Concrete, whose name we have discussed at length, had stolen a bunch of money from a crooked judge who was working for this man:
That man, whose name I do not care to know, had employed Finger, a ball-stomper who was not only proficient in emasculation, but had also intensely studied how to make a person vomit by touching them just so.
It was Finger’s job to retrieve the money, so he easily kidnapped Bug, called Concrete on his cellphone somehow, and ordered him to traverse the titular 11 Blocks and give the money back in order to save his sister.
I’m actually completely okay with the core of this plot, believe it or not. Concrete happened into some money and, once separated from his sister, was motivated to save her by returning it, despite how much it would benefit his situation in life. This sort of very basic conflict is the type of thing that drives any basic action movie, so I was super about it. I was also super about these guys:
HORROR GANGS! Specifically the SKULL FUCKERS! Concrete was going to have to make his way through ELEVEN WHOLE BLOCKS of colorful Horror Gangs in order to fight finger in all his nipple-pinching, nut-stomping glory in order to save his sister!
I was ready for a modern retelling of the Warriors. I could dig it, folks. I fucking love The Warriors. In my film school days, I can remember screening an old 16mm copy of the classic film, and it was one of my favorite shifts as a projectionist. I was all ready for Concrete to come out and play, going block-by-block just viscerally destroying a variety of colorful gangs. The Skullfuckers would be the mini-boss, naturally, with Finger being the final showdown.
Well, I was maybe 1/3 right. The other two-thirds were flashbacks and retellings of the same scene. Seriously. See this guy?
“Yeah, Carlito.” You roll your eyes, again. “You showed us that guy like three paragraphs ago. Jeez.” You know why I’m showing him to you again? Because the money showed this exact scene to me, again, like four fucking times. Other repeated scenes were Concrete bustin’ out of his namesake, Bug attempting and failing at prostitution, a really uncomfortable scene where Concrete’s unnamed father unsheathes a samurai sword and karate kicks him for a while, a shot of Concrete walking, a shot of a strange man accosting Bug as she and Concrete sleep underneath an overpass, and a shot of Concrete and his father drunkenly stumbling through some shipping containers.
That last one is actually an important scene, thematically, and it lead me to my biggest frustration with this film. Honest to god, you guys, there is a halfway decent concept here. One of the two directors of this movie primarily worked on shorts prior to filming this, and it shows. If they were to have condensed this film down to a 30-40 minute short, it would have been some simple shlocky fun. It would have been dark, and bleak, and devoid of fun, but apparently that sort of thing does well in the box office these days. Unfortunately, neither of the folks behind the camera seem to know how to handle a feature-length story.
The flashback scene I mentioned, Concrete and his father drunkenly stumbling, actually serves to inform the final fight of the movie (Concrete vs. Fingers). You see, Concrete’s father, in addition to being a karate aficionado, is also a drunken piece of shit. When Concrete finally calls his father out for being a total lush, good ol’ dad responds like any Drunken Stepfather Cliche would: he tries to murder his own son. He has Concrete up against the side of a shipping container and Concrete has to use some seriously brutal CQC to break free and kill his own dad.
Concrete later draws on this memory when engaged in combat with Fingers, and vanquishes the Final Boss using the very same techniques he used to off dear old dad. If the film had been edited just a bit more competently, this would have given the final fight some real weight. Instead, it was one of a million different flashbacks, which only heightened the temporal dissonance of the film.
The Horror Gangs, lovely as their name might be, were also misused. I originally inferred that the “11 Blocks” in question would correspond to 11 unique Horror Gangs. I was woefully mistaken. In reality there are four. There were the Skullfuckers, who seemed a bit misinformed about human anatomy, as they informed a passerby that she would find out how they got their name by “running a train on her ass.”
There were also the Sleepwalkers, who ran C and D Block. Concrete explained that they were feral, which translated into them making a lot of playful screeching noises while doing cartwheels and flips.
The two other Horror Gangs were unnamed, sadly. There was a gang who wore transparent face masks, and another gang who burned plastic white masks onto their faces. Let’s ignore the fact that the plastic would probably have melted before they could properly affix it to themselves and just embrace this as a neat image.
Each Gang seemed to have a somewhat unique fighting style (the Melty Faces favored knives), and the choreography was decent enough and the shots were wide enough that I could appreciate the actual martial arts ability that was on display. Unfortunately, the backdrops were so flimsy that I could visibly see cloth walls fluttering in the background, and the fights themselves dragged on for far too long. While I appreciated the directors giving each gang something a bit different to do each time, the fights as a whole followed the “one at a time” model, where gang members patiently waited for Concrete to finish with one of their peers before approaching. I could have used a bit less fighting and flashback, and a bit more world development. I could have easily sacrificed eleven or twelve of the flashbacks in order to see the Melty Faces in their natural habitat, or perhaps one or two more Horror Gangs. This guy looks super spooky, and sadly, he’s only used in the opening and closing montages (which are obviously identical).
The Bottom Line:
11 Blocks is just barely watchable. Despite all the bravado on display, I got the sense that the directors didn’t have much confidence in their own narrative. It’s a flimsy one, to be sure, but that’s the nature of the beast when it comes to action films. The constant flashbacks and repetition made the film more confusing and drawn out than it needed to be, and it was all done at the expense of leaving out crucial information. Remember this guy?
Of course you do. He died out of nowhere in an entirely unrelated scene where he was choked to death by one prostitute while engaged in coitus with another prostitute. I don’t know either of these women’s names. I still don’t know his name. I don’t know why these women chose to kill him. I don’t know what effect his death had on the rest of the film. I don’t know where this took place. I don’t know why this took place. Perhaps one or two of these questions could have been answered, instead of watching Concrete’s father unsheathe a sword for the eleventh goddamn time.
There is a decently dark and gritty movie here, but it’s hidden amongst far too much filler for it to be truly enjoyable.
I rate this film 2 1/2 Glass Cocks out of 11 Glass Cocks. Maybe a hit would have made it go down easier.
COMING UP NEXT WEEK ON THE “REST” OF NETFLIX:
Carlito finally returns to the Good Ol’ U.S. of A. for an eloquent treatise on the sanctity of marriage and the importance of consequences in “American Muscle.”