Joe Cornish is one half of the comedy duo Adam and Joe, a pair of TV presenters / DJs / podcasters with a loyal fan base and a career built – to a certain extent – on the lampooning of popular culture. Friends with Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost et al, his debut feature Attack The Block is a London-set mix of horror, action and comedy, co-produced by Nira Park (Shaun Of The Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs The World) and executive-produced by Wright.
It begins seriously, with nurse Samantha Adams (Jodie Whittaker) mugged in a Brixton street as she walks home after work on Bonfire Night. She is attacked by a teenage gang of petty criminals led by 15-year-old Moses (John Boyega), but before the youths can make off with her phone and handbag they are in turn set-upon by a strange and vicious creature, which they subsequently chase, corner and kill.
This triggers an alien invasion of sorts, but rather than the nationwide or worldwide attacks we are used to seeing, this one is smaller in scale, a prolonged act of revenge which takes place almost exclusively in and around the tower blocks where Samantha and the gang live. (It is a fictional estate called The Ends, supposedly in Brixton, but filming largely took place on the soon-to-be demolished Heygate Estate in Elephant And Castle, South London fans.) The alien party consists of dozens of nasty, gorilla-type creatures with jet-black fur and sharp, fluorescent blue teeth, and they are here to exact retribution, seeking out Moses and his gang, who must team up with Samantha in order to stay alive.
Several (mainly white, male, middle class) TV, newspaper and magazine reviewers appeared to be falling over each other in order to praise this movie when it was released, getting ever-so-slightly carried away and excitedly declaring the slang patois to be utterly authentic. Indeed the actors – local kids in their first roles for the main part – contributed to the script, but on occasion although the words may be real enough the delivery is lacking. (Although overall I am unconvinced, I am not an expert and can’t say for sure. There’s an over-reliance on the slang words ‘fam’ and ‘bare’, which sounds a little too forced to me, but there’s a little bit of credibility lent to the dialogue by references to video games like Call Of Duty and FIFA.) In one daily newspaper Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine was even mentioned, ridiculously, as if it were a comparable touchstone (hey, they both feature young people and a lot of concrete).
If you happened to have read any of those reviews – as I did – you could be forgiven for expecting an accurate portrayal of south London’s disaffected youth – as I did – and you’ll probably be disappointed – as I was. However that’s not the fault of Cornish, who clearly wasn’t intending to examine life on the council estate in any great detail here, and as far as I am aware he has not suggested his movie is to be held up as an authentic portrayal of 21st Century London gang culture. (Check the TV series Top Boy or – at a push – Harry Brown for something a little meatier.) Perhaps some excitable reviewers got suckered in by the proclamations of PR and marketing people with this film.
Attack The Block gives us a slight spin on the alien invasion flick by setting it on a south London housing estate, and indeed there is some sociological insight with regard to common, negative facets of estate life (relationships with the police, gang progression and criminal behaviour generally), but throughout any commentary feels in danger of being lost amidst all the stereotyping, much of which is in place to increase the number of laughs. In order to highlight the toughness and complicated nature of Moses, Cornish – somewhat predictably – falls into the trap of creating unlikely characters whose only purpose seems to be to act as a point of contrast, such as cuddly, edge-free dealer Ron (Nick Frost) and his posh trustafarian customer Brewis (Luke Treadaway). It’s also disappointing to see the introduction of younger streetwise (but less-threatening) estate kid characters to draw on the all-too-familiar ‘kids who swear’ comedy goldmine; unfortunately they don’t really add any credibility to the film’s all-too-brief examination of progression through the gang ranks, although they are admittedly good for a couple of giggles.
Cornish handles the action well, successfully drawing on the American films he grew up watching in the 1980s, and his film’s thrills bring to mind works by John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and John Landis, though unfortunately there’s nothing particularly scary or memorable about the horror here. Still, he successfully utilises the energy of the younger cast members, and they seem to relish the chance to take part in mock battle in front of the green screen. Their enthusiasm is strong, and infectious.
The premise is simple, and rather unexpectedly Cornish – who also wrote the screenplay – has made a fairly serious sci-fi action film with a couple of young kids and stoners thrown in to raise the laugh quota. Anyone following his career to date, or that of any of the names above involved with the movie, could be forgiven for expecting a superior genre spoof a la Shaun Of The Dead, but this has a very different feel to it, and is played straight for the most part. Unfortunately though, this is yet another British sci-fi or horror film that appears to feel the need to apologise for its serious side by introducing some light-hearted relief; it’s as if financiers cannot bring themselves to back British films unless they contain humour. For every 28 Days Later or Neil Marshall horror there are two dozen forgettable, throwaway nudge-nudge-wink-wink horrors like Lesbian Vampire Killers or Cockneys v Zombies. Unfortunately while this is much better than the latter it’s nowhere near as good as Marshall’s The Descent or (more relevantly) Dog Soldiers. It is slightly amusing on occasion but ultimately a little toothless.
Directed by: Joe Cornish
Written by: Joe Cornish
Starring: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Nick Frost
Running Time: 88 minutes