REVIEW: Attack the Block [2011]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 88 minutes | Release Date: May 13th, 2011 (UK)
Studio: Optimum Releasing / Screen Gems / Sony Pictures Releasing
Director(s): Joe Cornish
Writer(s): Joe Cornish

“They’re four foot high, blind, n’ got kicked to def by a bunch a kids. We got nuthin’ to worry ’bout”

After the extraordinary success Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s Shaun of the Dead’s comedy/horror mash-up found internationally, it’s no surprise their friend Joe Cornish’s feature directorial debut has achieved equally staggering results. Attack the Block is a mix of horror, comedy, and science fiction as it depicts a gang of adolescent hoodlums taking on an alien invasion in Brixton, South London. Right after the kids mug a young nurse at knifepoint for a phone and little else, a slimy creature falls from the sky straight through a parked car beside them. While their victim Sam (Jodie Whittaker) runs off in the confusion, Moses (John Boyega) and his boys close in for a better look.

A scarred face, fireworks show, and chaotic physical melee follow, culminating in the quintet possessing the spoils of victory. Riding high on the adrenaline rush, the kids start calling their friends to brag about the fight. They roam city streets and show off the grotesque carcass dragging behind them, disgusting their young girlfriends and hoping weed dealer Ron’s (Nick Frost) amateur fascination with the Nature Channel can shed light on the beast’s origins. So, it’s back to the ‘block’—the large apartment complex where the kids, Sam, and Ron’s drug dealing employer Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) live. Unbeknownst to them, though, the dead alien becomes a beacon for its friends to arrive and seek vengeance.

Moses, Pest (Alex Esmail), Jerome (Leeon Jones), Dennis (Franz Drameh), and Biggz (Simon Howard) decide right away that although the battle had finished, the war was only beginning. Taking up arms—bangers, bats, and a samurai sword—the boys hit the pavement again to bash in some extraterrestrial skulls. Ron and regular weed customer Brewis (Luke Treadaway) stay in the block to smoke up and laugh at the kids’ invasion hypothesis while the new arrivals from the sky begin to skulk the alleyways below, converging on the complex. Much more menacing than their predecessor, these furry, black-as-night beasts are the size of gorillas and have only the brightest of white fang-like teeth to discern them from the shadows.

Brilliantly orchestrated by Cornish, he never lets anyone besides the characters we meet realize what is happening. The police think a riot has started due to the busy night they’re having and Sam’s eyewitness account fingering Moses as the leader sets them on his tail. A troubled youth shrouded in secrecy, Boyega wonderfully portrays his blank, serious stares and the hurricane of energy and guilt within as he begins believing the whole ordeal is his fault. After standing up to Hi-Hatz as a means for survival early on, the unpredictable hot head joins the cops and invaders vying for his head. But his ‘bruvs’ aren’t going to leave him in the lurch—‘trust’. Emboldened with a sense of duty for the first time in their lives, these street dwellers are humanity’s only hope for survival.

Scripted with a succinct, eccentric South London slang, these kids are as authentic as you can get. Their mugging of Sam is fearsome and borderline brutal, their language and excitement at killing the creature a fine example of the exuberance of youth. Misunderstood and labeled as troublemakers, these kids really don’t stand a chance in the system without conforming to an unsavory image. They all have families—a great montage when acquiring their weapons shows Jerome and Pest promising their guardians they’ll behave—but once the block’s front gate swings shut, fearsome personalities take over. Only when survival trumps the electric charge of criminal activity and Sam joins them for protection do we see behind the masks and into their boyish souls.

The horror gore is on par with any other from the genre, the computer effects for the beasts are stunningly minimal, and the characters are fleshed out to be so more than stereotypical gang members. Well, maybe the possessing more than just compassion-less tomfoolery is the stereotype—hood with a heart of gold? Their interactions with each other are hilarious when the stakes are at their highest, Esmail is a riot as the first to let Sam into the group by flirting with her continuously, and Whittaker is much more than the damsel in distress you initially believe. A woman who wants nothing more than staying alive, Sam evolves throughout and begins to understand what it means to live on the block. There is an underlying rule to respect your neighbors and when gigantic monsters are bearing down and climbing up the windows, protection is paramount.

Never forgetting that the stars are children, Cornish either has his fingers on the pulse of youth street culture or knew to let his actors create their roles with as little artifice as possible. From Drameh’s punk attitude to Howard’s fearlessness in being afraid when trapped in a garbage dumpster opposite an alien outside to Boyega’s calm leadership in the face of horrific death, all rise above cliché to ring absolutely true. Add the nine-year old duo of Probs (Sammy Williams) and Mayhem (Michael Ajao) and you’ve got comedic gold. Trying so hard to earn their self-made monikers and respect from the big boys, they refuse to go home and do homework. Packing a Super Soaker and a lot of attitude, I loved every moment the story looped back to throw them back into the mix.

Hands down the genre flick of the year, Attack the Block is a fun romp with much more intelligence than one of its ilk needs to succeed. The tension created during a fight inside a smoky block hallway lit by a timer is vintage psychological horror, yet Joe Cornish finds a way to end it with a joke. Magnificent work across the board from acting to effects to writing, directing, and more, I’d love to see Cornish find the type of continued success his chums Wright, Pegg have. After co-writing the script to The Adventure of Tintin and still being attached to scribe Ant-Man, the future looks bright. I wouldn’t mind seeing another passion project like this get off the ground either, though.

[1] (clockwise from bottom left) Leeon Jones as Jerome, Luke Treadaway as Brewis, Jodie Whittaker as Sam, John Boyega as Moses, Alex Esmail as Pest in Screen Gems’ ATTACK THE BLOCK. Photo by: Screen Gems. © 2011 Screen Gems, Inc. All rights reserved.
[2] Nick Frost as Ron in Screen Gems’ ATTACK THE BLOCK. Photo by: Liam Daniel. © 2011 Screen Gems, Inc. All rights reserved.
[3] Jodie Whittaker (Sam, center) talks to the boys as Jumayn Hunter (Hi Hatz), Jermaine Smith (Beats) and Lee Long (Patrick) emerge from the lift door behind her in Screen Gems’ ATTACK THE BLOCK. Photo by: Liam Daniel. © 2011 Screen Gems, Inc. All rights reserved.

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