The sky is falling, bizarre meteor-like chunks of rock crashing to earth all around a low rent, inner city council estate. But these are no mere space rocks. They are containers, vessels carrying within them a collection of vicious alien creatures. And the only people who know the truth, the only ones who can stem the tide, are a group of five teenage thugs.
The debut feature from frequent Edgar Wright collaborator Joe Cornish - the duo worked together on the script for Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg's upcoming Tintin - Attack The Block is a sort of modern day Goonies, only with the kids a couple years older, far less lovable and left to grow up largely unsupervised in the roughest part of town. While the limit of transgression in The Goonies was Mouth talking dirty to the hired help this is a film loaded with pot, coarse language and a group of kids who we meet as they rob a young woman at knifepoint. And where The Goonies was an entirely bloodless affair this is a film where people die. The stakes are high. Beyond that, though, Cornish aims for essentially the same blend of youth driven adventure and comedy - a film where the kids don't need adult help, thank you very much - and he hits the mark soundly with a film that is a funny, frightening thrill ride from start to finish.
Cornish takes three major risks with Attack The Block, all of which pay off for precisely the same reasons. First, though he does include a couple of recognizable faces in the cast - most notably Shaun of the Dead, Paul and Hot Fuzz star Nick Frost - this is entirely the kids' movie. The weight of the entire thing is placed on the shoulders of five young, unknown actors. Second, Cornish begins by presenting his young stars in the least flattering light possible, with the quintet cornering and terrorizing a young woman. They are almost cliche in how hard they play to stereotype, a move that risks alienating the audience right from the outset. And, finally, there is the question of language and accent, the young group speaking in a heavily accented, street oriented dialect that can be difficult to follow at times.
But ultimately all of these things prove not just strengths instead of weaknesses, but the ultimate point of the film. While the surface level of Attack The Block is a high energy action-comedy lurking just beneath the surface is a film conceived as a youth movie, a film about young people and how they are perceived and - more to the point - how they then play up to those perceptions. The language is a deliberate cloak, a tool used to assert power over the world that has largely shoved them to the side. The violence a sort of preemptive strike against that same culture. After all, if they're going to get hit with all the negative associations that come with being a young man in this neighborhood regardless of whether it is deserved, why not go ahead and indulge in those urges anyway? As the film moves on Cornish proves himself remarkably perceptive of these young men, each of them unfolding to reveal surprising depth. The risks posed by language and perception are ultimately not risks at all because these are elements controlled fully by Cornish in his script and the man is simply a fabulous screenwriter. As to the matter of hanging an entire film on a group of young performers ... well, when your performers are as strong as these, that's no problem at all, either. Every one of the core five has a promising career ahead of him, particularly John Boyega as the group's grimly charismatic leader Moses.
But enough of that. That stuff only matters if the surface level ride is engaging enough to carry the audience through to the end and Cornish succeeds remarkably well on that end as well. The jokes are funny, the horror elements legitimately disturbing, the entire film shot through with the sort of nervous energy that comes from knowing that any one of these characters could fall at any time. The stakes are real. Though Cornish is not quite as strong an action director as I would hope his ability to shift gears is astounding, as is his ability to juggle a remarkable array of characters and events.
Attack The Block is a truly remarkable debut film, one that is going to find a fiercely loyal audience while establishing Cornish as a premiere talent with a truly unique and compelling voice. Screen Gems appear to be wrestling with their release plans for North America - this review is based on a twenty five city sneak preview screening, with the official release date and scope of the eventual release still not settled - and so those who have seen and appreciated the film and those who still want to see it are in something of a unique position. This is a rare occasion where a studio is actively seeking our opinions and seems likely to listen. So if you like it, speak up. And if you want to see it, speak louder. As for me? Clearly this is a film that deserves to be seen.
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