A wrongly expelled Harvard journalism student travels to England and becomes involved with the Green Street Elite (GSE), a notorious “firm” for London’s West Ham football club. There, he befriends the charismatic leader of the GSE and learns not to be a pansy.
Elijah Wood, Misunderstood
Most reviews of Lexi Alexander’s Green Street tend to focus on Elijah Wood’s performance as Matt “the Yank” Buckner. This is unfair. Not only does it take away from the vibrant performance of Charlie Hunnam as Pete Dunham, but it leads to the dismissal of Green Street as an empty film — a definite mistake. Neil Smith of the BBC perhaps sums up this critical opinion best when he writes:
“Elijah Wood [is a] a pint-sized, baby-faced actor who makes the least plausible hooligan in cinema history.”
Such a criticism betrays a serious misunderstanding of the film. Not only does Elijah Wood’s boyishness enable Alexander show how groups like the GSE attract their members from a wide spectrum of classes but — more importantly — it shows that it is precisely “girly guys” like Wood’s Matt Buckner who find themselves most attracted to groups of organized violence. Emasculated by their lives (jobs, girlfriends, wives, society) they seek any outlet they can find which allows them to express their masculinity.
“I Believe in a Ball and Two Posts, Amen.”
Bill Durodie, the director of the international centre for security analysis at King’s College London, has the following to say:
“And a society that believes in nothing is particularly frightened by people who believe in anything, and, therefore, we label those people as fundamentalists or fanatics, and they have much greater purchase in terms of the fear that they instil in society than they truly deserve.”
I think this can be fruitfully applied to Green Street, and to the film’s depiction of the GSE. Because for every blow the film strikes against the GSE, former kickboxing champion Alexander smacks a roundhouse to the face of society. Green Street doesn’t glorify violence; it glorifies standing for something.
Like one of the characters in the film mentions, the GSE is not a typical gang because it neither uses firearms nor engages in street crime. And the violence that does occur, while intense and often brutal, stays within the firms. Therefore, the GSE isn’t a physical threat to “normal” society. Instead, what “normal” society finds threatening is the idea that the GSE believes in something. At a time when traditional boundaries (between genders, between religions, between countries, between cultures) are being erased and society is heading toward globalization and [at least superficial] equality, any sort of atomization is viewed with fear and contempt.
Stand Your Ground
When we first meet Matt Buckner, he’s meek, unselfish, soft-spoken and unwilling to entertain a resistance against the roommate who’s substantially fucking him over. The idea to resist through violence is completely foreign to him — he doesn’t even consider it. Instead, he does what most people do; he accepts the situation and tries to cope.
At the beginning of Green Street, Matt Buckner is the perfect contemporary man. He’s safe for everyone. In essence, he believes in everything. But by the time Green Street ends, after he’s gone through his adventures in the GSE, Matt Buckner is a new man.
He learns to be confident, to stand up for what he believes is right, and to respect not only others, but also himself. What he doesn’t become is some kind of ultra-macho tough guy who listens to no one and thinks he can solve every problem with a punch to the gut and a kick to the head. And that’s Alexander’s point; that between the safe “perfect contemporary man” and dumb “ultra-macho tough guy” exists a happy medium. This medium man — the new Matt Buckner — doesn’t believe in everything fed to him. But he also doesn’t believe in nothing. He simply believes in something.
Hooligan the Good
Lexi Alexander has balls. She refuses to look at the GSE as one-dimensionally evil and destructive. While this leads critics such as Neil Smith to declare stupidly that Green Street, “obscenely glamorises senseless violence,” it makes for a significantly deeper film than any anti-hooligan polemic Smith would praise.
Most of the virtues of the GSE present themselves in the character Pete Dunham, their young leader. Some of these come delivered via hammer — when, for example, Pete gives up his seat on a bus to an old woman to show his thoughtfulness and caring — but others creep up on the viewer. One incident, which illustrates the fraternity among the members of the GSE, occurs early in the film: After attending his first football match, Matt is mistaken for a member of the GSE and attacked by a rival firm. The boys from the GSE come to his defence without hesitation, even though they distrust him both as an outsider and as an American. They put their own bodies in danger to save his.
The theme of self-sacrifice repeats itself throughout the film, as does the other key virtue of the GSE: honour. Both present themselves most powerfully in the film’s ending.
Hooligan the Bad
To say that Green Street glamorizes violence is to pay no attention to the film. Alexander shows the consequences of violence time after time (on family, on children, on the direct participants) in the story, and especially through her presentation of it. The fight scenes in the film are extremely brutal and unflinching. They may show the allure of violence — the rush — but they also show the pain, the ugliness, and the typical futility.
Lexi Alexander’s Green Street condemns violence without condemning the GSE. She boldly develops the GSE into an organization with reprehensible facets and redeeming qualities — like any good author would a good character. To suggest Alexander make a film that only condemns is to suggest she make propaganda.
Green Street may not be what most people want it to be; it doesn’t show what society dictates should be shown — or should be — and it doesn’t come to conclusions that are in complete harmony with the current view of an ideal society or an ideal man.
Technically accomplished and ably acted, Green Street never achieves the realism most critics think it craves — the story is too stilted and visibly structured for that — but it works wonderfully well as a good and surprisingly challenging film that could well be stamped: “subversive”.
Rating: 3.0 / 4.0