If you’re walking the streets of South London or New York City at night and the gentlemen in the photo to the left of this review walk towards you, what, if anything, is your reaction? Do you feel apprehensive? Do you walk the other way? And why? This scene plays early on in Joe Cornish’s “Attack The Block”, presented not to offend but to challenge. Some may be offended but “Block” cleverly tests the emotional impulses of some of its audience members while questioning heroism and examining its thankless rewards.
“Attack The Block”, a sci-fi horror-thriller that opened today in area theaters in San Francisco, begins with mischief, soon supplanted by menace in the form of jet-black blobs illuminated only by florescent blue-green teeth that maraud South London. Are the blobs an allusion to Onyx? The video game-like tormentor is a horror of an unknown origin.
Moses (John Boyega) leads a group of street toughs inhabiting South London’s Wyndham Towers estate. He possesses a woman’s jewelry, stolen, a trophy of his own cowardice. During the course of one night he and his cohorts take on aliens who for unexplained reasons savage Wyndham. The young men have to snuff out these beasts while dodging a skeptical, wild-eyed, gold-toothed gun-toting petty gangster whose Wyndham turf they’ve inadvertently stomped on.
“Attack The Block”, a “Gremlins”-meets-“Boyz N The Hood”-meets-“Blade” drama, isn’t a grand spectacle but it has its charms, exhibited in the joy of a kid’s new-found adventure. The smallest children of Wyndham get to fire away at their ultimate demons with glee. There’s genuine suspense and many very funny one-liners delivered with great timing, and in cockney accents some may have trouble understanding. I loved re-living my many years in England hearing the voices I grew up with while watching this film, which left me satisfied and often thrilled by its sense of adventure and spirit.
Mr. Cornish presides over a tightly-contained, entertaining adventure that occasionally parodies the aliens genre and showcases black and “mixed”-race “undesirables” first as criminals then as crimestoppers, while the predominantly white Metropolitan Police sit by as ravaging “foreign” hordes invade. (Maybe many of the Bobbies were busy attending to Rupert Murdoch and Jonny Marbles.)
The hands-off approach by police could be a metaphor for what is perhaps the average Londoner’s indifference to immigration, such is the infinitely more diverse and multicultural London of this new century. Had it been the 1970s this ugly onslaught would have been summarily put to bed. “Attack The Block” may be a depiction of low-intensity warfare as crime control: “let the undesirables take out the undesirables.”
The Met Police selectively fight crime. Potheads, mainly white, conduct drug business inside Wyndham with impunity, operating large bases like those in last year’s “Harry Brown”, whose earth-toned look this film echoes. In “Attack The Block” there’s larger alienation at work: an abandonment of a community and of those fighting to protect it. Curiously, no media is on the scene to cover this very newsworthy event. Aliens? In South London? That’s just not news for the British press — even its most infamous tabloids — to cover, despite the fact that there’s plenty of bleeding on display.
Mr. Cornish’s bright, pristine film is smartly written with balanced doses of action and comedy. “Attack The Block” offers sharp social commentary that throbs in the mind during both hectic and restful moments. The film bends the hero verve, tentatively flaunting a mild beat of sexual tension. It’s the closest that the film, produced by Nira Park and James Wilson (“Hot Fuzz”, “Shaun Of The Dead”) gets to subverting fearful damsels-in-distress and their assailants and making them into complex, affectionate beings. The subtext is there but the will to “go there” isn’t. The provocative start (akin to the early confrontation Kevin Kline has in “Grand Canyon”) doesn’t sustain itself, although some stereotypes do.
Though the characters are lively and engaging we don’t get to know any of them particularly well, including Moses, beyond the night fight. “Attack The Block” is a compactor: it comes by, entertains, waxes and takes out the trash. There’s no time for inspections. Eradication is the name of the game. Sometimes though, “Attack The Block” surprises, and it’s nothing if not a refreshing take on the creature features films of the 1980s.
Jodie Whittaker plays the sole woman brave enough, or forced by circumstances, to care about this night-long battle for the block. She does well in a relatively small role, providing the audience’s conscience and the film’s main glimpse of femininity. Mr. Boyega, in his first lead role in a feature film, is great as Moses. He has a fine future in film ahead of him. A younger-looking Denzel Washington, Mr. Boyega is a sharp, commanding figure whose intensity registers appropriately for the task at hand. His serious demeanor is offset by the film’s jovial atmosphere and reactions to the unwanted creatures. Some are too high to care and this great little movie delights in the craziness of it all.
–At area theaters.
With: Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, Leeon Jones, Simon Howard, Luke Treadaway, Jumayn Hunter, Nick Frost, Sammy Williams, Michael Ajao.
“Attack The Block” is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for creature violence, drug content and pervasive language. The film has its yucky, bloody moments too. The film’s running time is one hour and 28 minutes.
For more of Omar’s film stories, movie reviews and interviews visit his Popcorn Reel website and watch his unscripted film reviews on YouTube. Follow him on Twitter.
For a list of Omar’s joltleft.com stories and film reviews, click here. He is a contributing film critic for “Ebert Presents At The Movies” on PBS television and also a far flung correspondent for the preeminent film critic Roger Ebert and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle.