Review: Attack The Block

05/27/2011

With his SXSW smash Attack the Block, writer/director Joe Cornish joins the likes of Joon-ho Bong, Rian Johnson, Duncan Jones, Guillermo Del Toro, Neil Blomkamp, and his counterpart/producer Edgar Wright as yet another stand-out in the recent wave of loving genre filmmakers. His creation, an equal parts-funny and terrifying inner city Die Hard with aliens and kids, is full to brimming with the fresh perspective and earnest passion that the aforementioned cinephile/filmmakers imbue upon their best work. Clearly a lover of all the genres he’s riffing (which is practically everything from science fiction to alien horror to gritty gang drama) Cornish knows the rules well enough to break them with brio and yet embraces them for all the right reasons when necessary. As a result, Attack the Block is a slick, constantly entertaining production that pushes the limits of what a single film can accomplish. In a post-Coen, post-Raimi, post-Tarantino era where self-referential filmmaking is commonplace, it’s Cornish’s care and craft that propel his film into the rare upper echelon of B-movies.

More a self-aware genre exercise than a parody, Attack the Block focuses more on the visceral thrill ride than goofball comedy; obviously mindful of the silliness on hand but not about to break face for a second. Not that it isn’t funny (there are more than a few laugh-out-loud moments) but the joke won’t play if anyone cracks a smile. Like all the best B-movies from The Evil Dead to The Host, the film walks a careful line between its dramatic and comedic extremes. Both are equally important for the process to work, but neither can take precedence. Taking itself too seriously would be just as grievous a sin as acknowledging the joke. Just look at a what a slog some of the sillier movies from last year (like The Expendables, Clash of the Titans, Tron Legacy, The Last Airbender, The Wolfman, Legion, etc.) were as a result of being too serious about all the wrong things, whereas some films with less promising premises (like Unstoppable, Red, and Kick-Ass) got the joke and managed to keep their tone from jumping the shark.

The most important key to making this approach work is character. No matter how absurd the events are, the characters need to be real, the screenwriter needs to care about them, and, perhaps most importantly, he or she needs to understand them. Character is never out of place tonally, so long as everything rings true. Character can be the audience’s portal into the most alienating of worlds, be it an elderly Elvis and a black John F. Kennedy battling a mummy for their souls or two best friends crying over a fart joke during a zombie apocalypse. Those moments (which, for the B-cinema greenhorns, appear in cult classics Bubba Hotep and Shaun of the Dead) work because they connect with the audience on a universal and honest level, be it grappling with old age or expressing the deep bond of friendship. What buoys Attack the Block isn’t just how it unfolds its Twilight Zone short story (which many sub-par Hollywood blockbusters do effectively enough), but the way it peels back layers of insight into the young gang members and the world they live in. The cast does a wonderful job, portraying their tough-but-loyal camaraderie with a gravitas that you can’t write.

As the story descends into bigger and more ridiculous tangents, the revelations about our young protagonists and their interaction with poverty, gang violence, and bravery become more interesting. Look at any example of a successful B-movie in all of history. What defines these movies is character. High concept plots, twist endings, and dime novel science are all fun, but they wear thin without insight into the human condition. I cannot stress enough how important this is for a film of this sort to work properly, especially here where children are being showcased in such a violent scenario. It’s a huge risk to put sympathetic kids in harm’s way, but it’s obvious Cornish was aware of that before he set out to make his film; and he was well-equipped to handle (and even harness) that challenge to make his movie more effective. Without the discussion on adulthood, experience, and the difficult lives many youth are forced to go through (all of which is handled without any winking at all) the movie could have become distasteful really quickly. More than the line between horror and comedy, aliens and gangsters, or rich and poor, the tonal shift between character introspection and pulpy cliffhanging marks the most important contrast of Attack the Block. While balancing all those other elements is important, the economy of the screenplay in shifting between those two concepts is probably the saving grace of the film, which never wastes a moment getting to something we as an audience either want or need to know. While it might not have the comedic genius of a Wright movie, the directing panache of something by Rian Johnson, or the manic energy of a Raimi film (although it certainly comes close), it might be the most successful entry into the genre yet so far as successfully mixing compelling, honest drama and a crazy adrenaline rush. These extremes shouldn’t work; they really, really shouldn’t. And yet, that near-paradox of treating an aliens vs. gangsters movie with both an ironic genre nod and a hyper-real humanity is exactly what will endear audiences to the film and make it a classic in years to come.

All of that is the long way of saying Attack the Block is a fun movie with a good heart and a head on its shoulders, that also happens to feature brutal violence, dark commentary, and harsh reality. It makes sense that it was a huge hit among the folks at South by Southwest, and when I saw it two nights ago (at a preview screening with a bunch of readers of various film websites) the audience seemed to be eating it up just as much. Unfortunately, history has proven that midnight film festival crowds and theaters full of Slashfilm readers don’t speak for audiences (especially Americans) as a whole. It is going to be a tough sell for a nationwide release, and without any big stars (Nick Frost is the most recognizable face on the posters), a complicated premise, and its notorious thickly-accented dialog, it probably wouldn’t make its money back if it got one. District 9 made money in 2009 with similar obstacles, but they had Peter Jackson’s name to plaster all over the advertising. No, my inner cynic knows audiences can be turned off by too much of the wrong kind of fresh thinking (Scott Pilgrim or Moon anyone?), but in order to keep waking up in the morning I have to maintain hope that something like this could somehow find an audience in the real world. It’s simply too good not to.

A-

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