Studio: Shout Factory
Director: Ronnie Thompson, James Nunn
Writer: James Moran
Producer: Suki Dulai, Ronnie Thompson, James Harris, Mark Lane
Stars: Sheridan Smith, Ralph Brown, Russell Tovey, Jill Baker, Julie Graham, Chris Fulford, Jack O’Connell
An apartment building turns into an inescapable trap when the top floor residents become the targets of a deadly sniper.
With “Citadel,” “Dredd 3D,” and “The Raid: Redemption,” 2012 was already a banner year for highrise-centric thrillers. “Tower Block” adds itself to this apparently burgeoning sub-genre and materializes as the most suspenseful of the quadruplet, and possibly even the best overall.
Serenity House is a dangerous apartment building slated for demolition. But the impending wrecking ball is not the greatest threat that its residents face. It is the rampant theft and the violent assaults that keep everyone behind bolted doors with their heads buried in the sand. The top floor of Serenity House is the only level still occupied. Before these residents are displaced, however, they must endure a torture more grueling than a move-out inspection or a broken lease agreement. When a faceless sniper sets his sights on each remaining tenant, keeping their heads down is no longer an option. They have to band together and figure out how to outmaneuver a mysterious assassin who has planned a trap for every possible avenue of escape.
Taking the lift up to the top level of this premise does require leaving a healthy chunk of disbelief on the ground floor. The movie is tense and unnerving without revealing who is pulling the trigger and why s/he wants every tenant to take a dirt nap. But “Tower Block” offers an explanation anyway, with a Holmes-ian bit of deductive reasoning from the building’s resident child beating mother. As the targets discover three X-marked smiley faces painted on doors and drawn on scattered bits of paper, Jenny realizes that the faces signify, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” She connects this meaning to a three-month-old murder that took place in the building when all of the residents refused to speak to the police. Good on her for putting it all together so quickly, albeit more than a little conveniently.
There is also the matter of why an assassin would go through so much trouble to rig the building with traps and then spend 48 consecutive hours stalking everyone through a rifle scope from afar. It seems as though a single stick of dynamite or a bulletproof vest and assault rifle would make for a more efficient plan while freeing up the rest of the killer’s weekend. On the other hand, what memorable action movie does not mandate a preposterous leap in logic to jumpstart its plot?
Moving past the fiction of the setup comes with the reward of experiencing the smoldering energy that maintains the high tension throughout. The first headshot arrives without warning and the sudden shock is the only notice given that there will never be a safe moment in “Tower Block.” Once the residential terror begins, the film never lifts its foot from the accelerator for the next 90 minutes.
“Tower Block” may have been able to sustain itself on suspense alone. Clichéd phrases like “pulse-pounding,” “white knuckled,” and “edge of the seat,” are apt descriptors for the action. But rivaling the thwipping bullets and shotgun blasts to the chest are a cast of characters that stands out as a well-defined group, even when most of them are slated to be mere sniper fodder.
“Tower Block” starts with generic boilerplates of alcoholic, thug, elderly couple, single woman, et al., and develops them not only into individual personalities, but also into a believable community of authentic apartment residents. They are average and working class and otherwise nondescript. These are the people we walk past on the street or at the grocery store and never notice. Yet it is these seemingly dull and ordinary traits that give the residents their greatest appeal.
Kurtis is the top floor’s hooligan. He extorts a weekly protection payment from each tenant that serves as his incentive not to break in and smash their property. He is an annoying lout, pulling knives and dispensing inappropriate innuendos. In short, the audience cannot wait until a bullet explodes his skull. However, he gradually emerges as an unlikely hero and becomes surprisingly endearing.
Kurtis is a perfect complement to Becky. She is a cash strapped single woman who warms her bed with a one-night stand. Remarkably average in looks, background, and personality, Becky is de facto elected as their leader while the group puzzles out new escape routes and plans that generally meet with disastrous results. Building from such unlikeable templates gives the characters authentic arcs that force them to earn the audience’s respect, and puts us on their side in the struggle for survival.
The cinematography is as purposefully bleak as the survivors’ situation. A muted blue hue washes the tower block with urban despair. The camera is positioned in exactly the right corner when the whiz of sniper fire pierces the frame, and then a human head. From the visuals to the audio, “Tower Block” knows how to stage its moments in ways that catch the audience and the tenants completely off guard.
It is somewhat surprising, and mildly disappointing, that the execution of the ending is rushed. The final resolution for the remaining hostages comes as abruptly as the unexpected headshots. After the remaining questions are answered, the credits roll almost immediately. While partially unsatisfying, it does keep with the spirit of the overall film in a way. “Tower Block” is about continuous tension and unseen terror. As soon as the tank was empty on that front, the movie wanted to find an exit as much as the tenants did.
After the film ended, I noticed that my blinds were open. I actually paused without thinking as I moved to close them for the evening. I smiled as I realized the effect “Tower Block” had by making me leery of my own window, because that is the mark of an effective thriller. Of course it would be silly to think there could be a sniper across the street seeing my forehead centered in crosshairs. Then again, that is what the residents of “Tower Block” thought, too.
Review Score: 85