Star Harvard journalism student Matt Brucker (Elijah Wood) is set up by his effete, coke-snorting upper-crust roommate and quickly learns that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Instead of fighting his wrongful expulsion on the evening of graduation, Matt flees to his sister Shannon (Claire Forlani) and brother-in-law Steve Dunham (Marc Warren) in London. Before having a chance to unpack and shower, Matt finds himself unloaded onto Steve’s football hooligan "bad news" younger brother Pete (Charlie Hunnam). In no time, Matt is bonding with an East London all-male football firm (soccer) (gang), known as the G.S.E.
The audience is treated to a primer of working-class English culture—never ever call it "soccer," get your Cockney rhymes right, and know that the real enemy of blue-collar Britain is the press (all press is "tabloid" and every "journo" is a tabloid journo). Cast against his Frodo Baggins type, Elijah Wood’s Matt is a Yank Everyman entering the world of A Clockwork Orange’s malchiks, or "lads" in proper Cockney and soon finds himself throwing punches in hooligan rumbles in the name of honor, reputation, and Bravehearted macho prestige. (Remember, a "hooligan" is just a football fan who is despised by the police, the press, and the pussy-whipped general public.)
Director Lexi Alexander, who herself once belonged to a football firm, recasts the cult of male violence (the same one romanticized in Fight Club and denigrated in A Clockwork Orange) in a documentary-like study of warrior-class group dynamics. Even as the stable, older but wiser characters point to a way out from hooligan life, the film dwells affectionately on the deep love bonds of men doing battle together, developing purely symbolic chauvinist identities (what, other than male pride, can possibly be at stake in gang rivalry?), and cherishing their blows and war wounds unto death in a never-ending dance of violent male passage.
Particularly interesting is how Alexander inverts the American perspective (Americans as pragmatic, down-to-earth, "real men" versus effete, pompous British twits). This twist also allows her to explore gang dynamics minus the American dimension of racial hierarchies. (American media typically cast gangs as racial minorities fighting amongst themselves, or against each other in prison cultures, as a substitute for "leading productive lives" in society directly.) Hype from British sources, predicting that this film will not be popular among American audiences, plays the chauvinist blue-collar card–Matt is razzed, even threatened seriously, for being a Yank outsider to English lad culture. For all that, the violence is pretty luke-warm compared with typical Hollywood fare. Alexander wants to have it both ways—gratuitous violence as an entertaining end unto itself, but also as a warning ("don’t smoke," "don’t do drugs," "don’t join a gang"), while disguised as an urban anthropological study.
A complicated set of interlocking subplots drives the story line to tragic climaxes, multiple opportunities for choreographed gang rumbles, and a series of warrior-wisdom breakthroughs for Frodo. Sure to please fans of action-adventure flicks, footballers, and teenagers entranced by macho violence, Green Street Hooligans also offers up a few morsels for ethical meditation. Whereas the United States has been a war-based society for the last hundred years, Britain’s bellicosity has been fading away. What are alpha males supposed to do in a society that does not provide wars to distract and siphon their testosterone-driven need to vanquish and destroy?