Shopping ’til you drop: Paul W.S. Anderson’s anarchic debut at 30

Three decades on from its release, this 90s thriller echoes the disenfranchisement of young people and sensationalisation of shoplifting.


Fran Bowden

As night descends on a gloomy industrial landscape, Shopping dares to find the beauty in that darkness. Aerial shots of cooling towers and naked flames set against the sky evoke a lower-budget, more realistic Blade Runner. However, fast forward a few decades and this haunting vision of the near future pales compared to the real thing.

In 2024, you no longer need to crash through a shopfront window to hit the headlines or strike fear into the hearts of columnists. Amid a cost-of-living crisis in the shadow of a global pandemic, shoplifting such extortionately expensive goods as bread, butter and baby formula is enough to stoke a media firestorm.

But the irreparably broken Britain of Shopping has many parallels with our own. Life is a losing game for the younger inhabitants of this urban underworld; one filled with desolate industrial estates and brutalist tower blocks packed to the brim, surveilled around the clock by a fascist police force, and rigged from the start in favour of the ruling class.

When we meet Billy (Jude Law), he’s about to leave his cell for the last time – he’ll put on his trademark leather jacket and head south, ready to die in a blaze of B-movie glory sooner than get caught again. Waiting outside is Jo (Sadie Frost), over a no parking sign in a shoddy stolen car, having fled the Troubles for a conflict less close to home.

From the opening scenes of his debut feature, the trademarks of Paul W.S. Anderson’s video game aesthetic are all present and accounted for. A symmetrical centred shot of Billy strutting down the corridor flanked by a guard on either side, followed up with an overhead shot of him stepping out of prison and straight into a vehicle, possess the look and feel of live-action cutscenes. They could just as easily serve as the player’s introduction to a dystopian, GTA-style sandbox in which carjacking is the only way to get from A to B.

As soon as they’re together, side by side in the same car, it’s as if these doomed lovers and partners in crime, somewhere between Bonnie and Clyde and Sid and Nancy, were never apart. To feel alive, but mostly just to kill time and make the news, they go on a shopping spree long after closing time.

Not far from where Billy spent the last three months bored to death behind bars (and where writer-director Anderson grew up), the ‘ram raid’ made its earliest known appearance in the pages of the Newcastle Chronicle. For much of the eighties and nineties, as the end of the century drew nearer, this neoliberal Wild West was the locus of the press’s worst imaginings.

Even the MetroCentre, then the largest shopping and leisure development in Europe and a veritable bastion of consumerism, was at risk of an unprovoked attack.

In 1991 it provided the backdrop to the most recent in a spate of ram raids caught on CCTV and broadcast for the pleasure of viewers at home, cowering in the shattered safety of their living rooms. Suddenly, or so it seemed according to the media, an epidemic of violent crime was sweeping the nation, and it was en route at breakneck speed by pre-internet standards, from stills of security footage splashed across the front pages all the way to your doormat delivered by the paperboy. The stakes could not be higher, life and death be damned: private property was in peril!

Under cover of this manufactured panic, the security-industrial complex became a permanent fixture of Shopping’s Tory dystopia. Since Billy’s arrest, the inner city has undergone a series of insidious renovations. What used to be a “beautiful little shop” until “people kept driving cars into it” is now a miniature fortress with metal shutters, security cameras and staff trained to spy on anyone deemed suspect (i.e. poor).

To ease their way into this hi-tech frontier, Billy and Jo start small with a yuppie’s BMW convertible. Anything offensive to either’s taste, along with the previous owner, gets spit out onto the street below. Except, that is, for a handheld game console to keep them entertained until the battery dies, or they finally run out of road.

Bar the finale, every chase scene that follows, by cutting back and forth between reality and a 16-bit rendering, transforms their hyper-policed world from waking nightmare into non-stop thrill ride. But as the action escalates, culminating in a shopping centre suicide mission, the size of the response grows at an exponential rate.

It’s a pleasant surprise that by the end the police aren’t armed with weapons of war. The second the glass breaks and the alarm goes off, a pack of vehicles is already snapping at their heels. And yet, in the heat of the moment, there’s time to turn the sprinkler-drenched shopfloor of a fancy department store into a musical soundstage, umbrella in hand.

Inevitably, Billy and Jo fall short at the final hurdle. Inside the mangled wreckage of a brightly coloured bimmer, their lucky cassette tape unspools like redemption tickets from an arcade machine. The middle-class mannequins and opulent domestic scene set out neatly in the window display opposite their bloodied bodies is left without a scratch. All is right with the world.

Alongside a rogue’s gallery of legendary British character actors (including Sean Bean, Jonathan Pryce, Ralph Ineson and Jason Isaacs), Shopping gave a young, outrageously beautiful Jude Law his first major film role. But the real star has to be Sadie Frost at the peak of her nineties powers. Fresh off of playing a vampirized bride in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and only a year away from pushing the trolley down the disco supermarket aisle with a tiny Jarvis Cocker in tow, she steals every scene she’s in.

Thirty years later, despite having been thwarted in its commercial ambitions, this post-industrial tragedy still stands as a highly resourceful example of what is creatively possible in British cinema, even amid a fallow period of negligent, wilfully destructive policymaking. With another superficial regime change on the horizon, it also offers us an evergreen reminder.

To really get away with robbing the rich, we all have to do it. Until that day comes, things can only get worse, no matter who’s in charge. Or as The Smiths, channelling Marx and Engels, more famously put it: shoplifters of the world, unite and takeover!

Published 21 Jun 2024

Tags: Jude Law Paul WS Anderson Sadie Frost Shopping

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