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From the DVD Shelf: Attack the Block

November 23rd, 2011
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I’d been reading about Joe Cornish’s directorial debut, the British sci-fi/horror/comedy film Attack the Block, all year.  The low-budget film was a hit on the festival circuit, and was trumpeted by several of my favorite on-line film reviewers, notably Drew McWeeny at Hitfix.com and Devin Faraci at badassdigest.com.  It received a U.S. theatrical release, but sadly came and went from theatres pretty quickly.  When the film was released on blu-ray last month, I was excited to track it down.

The film is terrific, and I’d wager that if you enjoyed UK-based action/comedies such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels or Layer Cake, then you’ll really dig Attack the Block.

The titular “block” refers to a low-income housing unit in Kennington, England.  The film’s main characters are a small band of kids from the block who try to escape their lives of poverty and boredom at home by wreaking havoc on the streets.  When we first meet them, they’re egging on their leader, Moses (John Boyega in a star-making role), to beat an unidentifiable creature to death.  Then they mug Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young single nurse who also lives in the block.  It’s the start of a fine evening for the boys, until an alien invasion spoils all their fun.  Yep, turns out the creature they beat to death was a little alien, who has a lot of angry friends.

The genius of Attack the Block is the way it marries sci-fi alien invasion movie conventions with the street-level young-tough humor of Guy Ritchie’s early films.  Generally these types of alien invasions strike New York City, not a run-down English inner city.  But, of course, watching these street hudlums face an alien apocalypse is the deliriously clever premise of the film, and the source of all the fun.

Not that Attack the Block is all fun and games.  In fact, the early-going isn’t that funny at all.  The gang’s mugging of Sam is an unsettling sequence, not the type of scene you’d expect to find in a film with comedy on its mind.  But writer/director Joe Cornish cleverly sets the stakes of the film to be very high right from the beginning.  This is a world in which bad things happen.  That mugging scene demonstrates that the characters in this film face real peril, thus escalating the dramatic tension.  It also gives a real character-arc to the boys in Moses’ gang.  I intensely disliked the boys at first, but absolutely grew to love them by the end.  It’s a pretty impressive achievement of story-telling, and is a critical reason that the films works as well as it does.

The other is in the way in which, while the film’s tension and danger builds as the story progresses, so too does the humor.  Somehow the more dangerous the story gets, the funnier it gets as well.  Attack the Block is the best type of roller-coaster ride.  The film builds to some real shocks and scares (and some characters meet fates I did NOT expect), but also to some huge laughs.  Mr. Cornish’s script develops the humor from the characters and their situations, rather than from easy punch-line set-ups, and the result is a truly engaging tale.

The cast of kids in the film are mostly unknowns, but I suspect we’ll be seeing many of these faces again in the future.  They all acquit themselves admirably, particularly John Boyega, upon whose shoulders so much of the film’s story rests.  He and all the kids make it look easy, and I credit not just their acting skills but the spot-on casting and, most of all, Mr. Cornish’s directing skills.  Drawing a great performance out of a young actor can be tricky — I don’t think any of us needs to think too hard to come up with a list of films with weak performances from their child stars — and making sure that an entire cast filled with kids all perform so well is quite an exceptional feat.

The one recognizable adult in the film is Nick Frost (Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Paul).  He mines gold from every one of his scenes as the drug-dealing Ron (in whose fortified weed-room the boys keep the alien carcass, which ultimately causes them a lot of trouble).  It’s fun seeing the talented Mr. Frost separated from his regular comedic partner, Simon Pegg.  Those two are amazing together, but there’s an excitingly different energy to seeing Mr. Frost bounce off of all these new, young actors.

The film was clearly made on a very small budget, but I was impressed by how good it looks.  Whatever budget Mr. Cornish and his team had, they clearly did a great job stretching to its limit.  I was quite taken, in particular, by the look of the aliens.  Don’t go in expecting a hyper-detailed CGI extravaganza — the creatures are pretty clearly men in fuzzy suits.  But the creatures work.  The design is clever — the glowing teeth is a great hook to the image — and some great stunts and confident directing keep the creatures menacing throughout.  It’s all very skillfully done.

Though one can most likely draw a list of the films which influenced Mr. Cornish, his finished film represents a unique, exciting vision.  Attack the Block is a spectacular debut film, and I can’t wait to see what Mr. Cornish does next!

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