Sunday, January 29, 2017

On Netflix: iBOY (2017)

(US/UK - 2017)

Directed by Adam Randall. Written by Joe Barton, Mark Denton and Jonny Stockwood. Cast: Bill Milner, Maisie Williams, Miranda Richardson, Rory Kinnear, Jordan Bolger, Charlie Palmer Rothwell, Aymen Habdouchi, Armin Karima, McKell David, Shaquille Ali-Yebbuah, Christopher Colcuhoun. (Unrated, 90 mins)

Once you get past the hokey title, the Netflix Original iBOY is a decent-enough time-killer blending sci-fi elements with the vigilante genre, set in familiar-looking HARRY BROWN, FISH TANK, and ATTACK THE BLOCK London housing projects and bathed in that Michael Mann-ish blue sheen that makers of British crime thrillers love so much. Based on a novel by Kevin Brooks, iBOY focuses on Tom (Bill Milner, grown up since the 2007 cult movie SON OF RAMBOW), a shy, quiet teenager who lives in a public housing block with his grandma (Miranda Richardson). He has a crush on classmate Lucy (GAME OF THRONES' Maisie Williams) and when he goes to visit her nearby flat, he walks in on a burglary in progress with Lucy in her bedroom screaming for help. Tom impulsively flees and tries to call for help, but he gets shot in the head and is comatose for ten days. Once he's awake, he's informed that pieces of his iPhone are lodged into his brain from when he was shot, and attempting to remove the fragments is too risky a procedure. All things considered, he's generally fine other than a large scar on the side of his head but complications arise when Tom begins picking up wi-fi connections and phone signals that allow him to instantly hack anyone around him, cataloging images and data of whatever everyone he passes is saying or texting into their phone, iPad, laptop, etc.

Of course, this overloads his brain but he eventually learns how to control it, and when he realizes that the guy who shot him is troublemaking classmate Eugene (Charlie Palmer Rothwell), Tom decides to use his newfound powers for revenge on Eugene and his crew of small-time criminals who work for drug dealer Cutz (Aymen Habdouchi). He starts by playing simple pranks, but it quickly escalates to dangerous games like draining bank accounts and sending them on wild goose chases so he has time to break into Cutz's pad, steal his entire inventory, plant it in the homes of Eugene and all the underlings, then anonymously tip off the cops. This leaves paranoid Cutz frantic about losing his merch and the trust of his gang, and unable to explain what's happening to his boss, big-time London gangster Ellman (Rory Kinnear). All the while, Tom, hiding behind the moniker "iBOY," becomes a folk hero of sorts, a high-tech surveillance vigilante cleaning up all the crime and corruption permeating the housing block.

It's not the most plausible premise, but it's engaging enough to make you wish director Adam Randall and the screenwriters kept the momentum going through a sluggish midsection. The notion of Tom turning into a one-man Big Brother is intriguing, and there's a lot of humor in the games he plays with Eugene and the others, whether it's on their phones or controlling the computer system in their vehicles. It doesn't make much sense that with all of these new powers that permit him to see and hear all and even emit a high-pitched sound to incapacitate his enemies, he still doesn't pick up that Cutz and his gang are right behind him when they ambush him. And sometimes, his capabilities seem to go beyond the possibilities of simple hacking, turning him from a cloud-connected avenger to a Lawnmower Man-inspired CHRONICLE reject whenever it's convenient for the plot. I suppose the idea is that his powers are growing stronger, but we sort-of miss that realization taking place. And why can he suddenly do that trick with the high-pitched whistle?

After a meandering second act, things really pick up with the first appearance of Ellman a bit after the one-hour mark. As played by Kinnear, perhaps best known to Netflix viewers for his starring role as the British Prime Minister having the worst day of his life in the unforgettable BLACK MIRROR series premiere "The National Anthem," Ellman is a fascinating and complex character who you'll wish had more screen time. Ellman grew up in these projects and has a chip on his shoulder about it, not denying his roots but instead infiltrating high society to take it down from within. When he realizes his operation has been put in jeopardy by "iBOY," he doesn't want revenge--he wants to recruit him. Ellman has a sense of honor--when Tom's only other friend Danny (Jordan Bolger) rats him out, Ellman scolds "If you're gonna betray your friend, at least look him in the eye when you do it!" He's prone to wry observations like "Cutz is a man with a hammer in a world of china, know what I mean?" and seething sarcasm, as when Eugene and his stooges kidnap Lucy and she ends up outsmarting them: "You got everything under control here?  I mean the hostage does have the gun." Kinnear sinks his teeth into the role and in the course of just a few minutes, creates the most detailed and multi-layered character in the movie, stone-cold serious but making you laugh at the same time ("Really, Cutz? The granny?" after Cutz impulsively knocks Tom's grandma unconscious). iBOY isn't a kids movie at all--it's dark, bleak, profane (even Arya Stark drops a bunch of F-bombs), and violent, played completely straight and would easily get an R rating if it was in theaters instead of bowing on Netflix. iBOY shows enough flashes of brains and inspiration that it's worth a watch, but it drops the ball with a certain degree of frequency. It's entertaining, but ultimately, it's still the kind of movie that gathers all of its characters for a climactic showdown at an abandoned warehouse.

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