Attack the Block: Film Review
Jodie Whittaker, John Boyega, Alex Esmail
There’s a vaguely Spielbergian quality to British writer-director Joe Cornish’s skill at balancing his young heroes' sense of shared adventure with genuine danger.
NEW YORK – In Hollywood teens-in-peril movies, the protagonists – aside from a token nerd or two -- usually have flawlessly sculpted noses, great hair, toned gym bodies and excellent teeth. Their most reprehensible behavior might be skipping class or talking back to a parent. One of the many delights of the fast and funny Brit alternative, Attack the Block, is that the ragtag, inner-city gang besieged by hostile aliens are junior thugs from the projects, which makes their redemption all the more winning.
The ripe remake potential here is a no-brainer, but the unassuming charms of this Screen Gems pickup, with its irresistible blend of the rough-edged with the slick, give Attack the Block a shot at attracting some culty attention on its own merits.
A popular TV and radio comic in the U.K., writer-director Joe Cornish is a co-scripter on Steven Spielberg’s year-end release The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, and the forthcoming Marvel feature, Ant-Man. On both those projects he works with Edgar Wright, who figures here as executive producer. Wright’s British features, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, tweak their respective genres (zombie flicks and cop action movies) with humor. By contrast, Cornish’s debut sticks to his chosen formula while freshening it with a specific urban identity, localized slang and scrappy but likable anti-heroes whose attitude outweighs their smarts. Pedal-to-the-metal pacing doesn’t hurt either.
The setting is a South London ‘hood, where the action unfolds over a single night. The racially mixed gang led by surly 15-year-old Moses (John Boyega) is first seen on the street relieving Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young nurse, of her cash, phone and jewelry at knife-point. It’s Guy Fawkes Night, so a meteor-like projectile careening toward them just looks like more fireworks until it crashes through the roof of a parked car. Checking the wrecked auto for valuables, Moses gets a nasty scratch from a creature lurking inside. All tough-guy bravado, he chases the thing up a dark hillside to kill it. Bad idea.
He stashes the unidentifiable carcass in the apartment of permanently baked weed dealer Ron (Nick Frost), where educated stoner Brewis (Luke Treadaway) verifies that it’s no species he ever encountered in zoology studies. But while they contemplate what it might fetch on eBay, dozens more aliens come raining down. Jet-black furballs that bound along like apes on all fours, their chomping jaws full of glow-in-the-dark razor teeth (think faceless Critters that sprint rather than roll), these invaders smell pheromones and are hell-bent on payback.
The heavy accents and local vernacular take some getting used to, but nothing crucial is lost. Cornish juices the dialogue with lots of deadpan humor, without undermining the menace or suspense by making his well-drawn characters too knowing. These are kids who have learned to rely on their wits and to distrust any authority but their own, so it’s natural they would take charge. Their meager finances are amusingly acknowledged in their collective lack of cell-phone credit: “This is too much madness to explain in one text!”
Cornish deftly folds the diverse characters together as allies and weeds out the foes. When Pest (Alex Esmail), a white kid who overcompensates by laying on the ghetto-speak, gets bitten, Sam is forced to help the group that mugged her earlier. But she soon needs their protection, and a mutual respect shyly blooms. Drug kingpin Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) initially recruits Moses, who seems ready to graduate to the big leagues, but he turns on the gang after misreading a messy situation.
There’s also spirited interplay between the boys and their female counterparts, led by feisty Tia (Danielle Vitalis), who roll their eyes at the clueless guys’ propensity to get into trouble. The girls hold their own in the alien combat, at one point memorably employing an ice skate blade as a lethal weapon.
The most disarming plot thread involves two 9-year-old tykes shut out of the big-kid action. Determined to earn their street cred, they insist on being called Probs (Sammy Williams) and Mayhem (Michael Ajao), stepping in when Biggz (Simon Howard) and his ‘fro are trapped in a dumpster under alien attack. The mostly young cast is uniformly appealing, while more seasoned hand Frost adds droll notes.
There’s a vaguely Spielbergian quality to Cornish’s skill at balancing the sense of shared adventure with genuine danger. The writer-director provides plenty of scares and nail-biting narrow escapes (plus the occasional bloody casualty), while also nurturing distinct personalities for his motley crew.
There’s a terrific efficiency to a scene in which they dash back to their respective apartments to arm themselves – among other things, with baseball bats, ornamental samurai swords, firecrackers and kitchen knives. The briefest exchanges with their parental figures show that beneath the hoodies and badass posturing, these really are still ordinary teenagers. Cornish nudges along rather than belabors the rite-of-passage elements, so that when Moses assumes responsibility for his actions and reveals true leadership skills, it pays off as a satisfying character development and not a contrived arc.
While the creatures look like vicious Muppets, they make surprisingly convincing antagonists. Visual effects overall, on what no doubt was a limited budget by most standards, are sharp enough. Where the movie really scores is in the muscular physicality of Thomas Townend’s widescreen cinematography, the speedy rhythms of Jonathan Amos’ editing, and the propulsive dynamic of Steven Price’s techno score, which incorporates driving beats from house music duo Felix Burton and Simon Ratcliffe of Basement Jaxx.
Opens July 29 (Screen Gems)
Cast: Jodie Whittaker, John Boyega, Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, Leeon Jones, Simon Howard, Luke Treadaway, Jumayn Hunter, Nick Frost, Danielle Vitalis, Sammy Williams, Michael Ajao
Production: Big Talk Pictures
Director-screenwriter: Joe Cornish
Producers: Nira Park, James Wilson
Executive producers: Matthew Justice, Tessa Ross, Jenny Borgars, Will Clarke, Olivier Courson, Edgar Wright
Director of photography: Thomas Townend
Production designer: Marcus Rowland
Costume designer: Rosa Dias
Music: Steven Price, Felix Buxton, Simon Ratcliffe
Editor: Jonathan Amos
Special effects supervisor: Sam Conway
Not rated, 88 minutes