Saturday, 21 January 2012

Film Review | Attack The Block (2011)

The comparisons between director Joe Cornish's Attack The Block and Wright and Pegg's modern classic Shaun Of The Dead are possibly an overly simplistic way of evaluating the more recent film. Both are the major feature directorial debut of a name primarily made in TV comedy, both blend action, sci fi, horror and comedy genres, and both transport these genres to unlikely locations from domestic Britain. Edgar Wright (SOTD co-writer and director) serves as executive producer of ATB. Oh, and both have Nick Frost in them. But, despite the two fims' similarities, it's not fair to simply rate Cornish's film on the "Shaun-ometer".

Attack The Block follows the exploits of a gang of teenagers living in a run-down council estate in London. After mugging nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker), the group encounter an alien entity which gang leader Moses (John Boyega) quickly decides to kill after it wounds his face. However, life on the estate quickly becomes more and more dangerous as larger and fiercer aliens soon arrive.

In many ways, Cornish doesn't make life easy for himself in making ATB a success. Within the first five minutes of the film, the group that we follow are set up as violent criminals; they rob a young woman at knifepoint, and their first instinct upon discovering what they quickly realise is an alien lifeform is to kill it, seemingly to teach it a lesson and just because it will entertain them for a while. The gang also associate with local drug dealer Ron (Frost) and his gangster boss Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). This does make the group difficult to root for once under siege from the alien threat, but also provides intrigue as to how, if at all, the gang members can redeem themselves before the credits roll.

It's to Cornish's credit that most (but not all) of the gang do manage that redemption. He shows us snapshots of their everyday lives - single parent families, living with grandparents, brief shouted conversations between rooms - as well as doing his utmost to make them more than just mindless hoodies hanging around on street corners. One of the most poignant moments of the script is delivered by Moses in a moment of respite against the alien threat, where he considers whether the government is sending in "monsters" to kill them. "We ain't killing each other fast enough" he ponders, "so they decided to speed up the process".

As the film progresses, it becomes clearer and clearer that Cornish is just as concerned with tackling why life on "the block" is the way it is as he is with extra-terrestrial action. That's not to say that the action takes second place to the social commentary. Cornish proves himself to be a dab hand at creating both fast paced fight sequences and tense set pieces that provide genuine scares. The alien creatures too, whilst clearly in part a product of a relatively small budget, provide ample threat and mystery throughout.

Moses slowly but surely takes his place as the film's primary protagonist, with Boyega's performance proving the most satisfying of the whole film. Having made Moses such an unlikable character at the start of the film, it is to his credit that Boyega bestows the role with depth and authenticity, so that when the story truly calls for it, we are fully behind him. Moses' home life is also one of the most hard-hitting, reminding us just why some teenagers fall into lives of delinquency. By the halfway point, Boyega owns each scene he's in, making his turn one to remember - his is a name that deserves to stick around for a good while in British cinema.

Whittaker's turn as recently qualified nurse Sam is also commendable, although the way her relationship with the gang who attacked her at the start of the night unfolds sometimes feels a bit too unlikely. I was also impressed with Hunter, who brought genuine menace and arrogance to local gangster Hi-Hatz.

Unfortunately (perhaps inevitably) not all the characters come off so well. Nick Frost as Ron the drug dealer and his upper-middle-class-trying-desperately-to-fit-in-with-gang-culture client Brewis (Luke Treadaway) provide some laughs, but never become more than one-dimensional caricatures. Within the teenage gang itself, not all members become sympathetic enough; Pest (Alex Esmail), for example, never shows much regret for his criminal indiscretions or understanding for his victims' feelings, essentially coming across as selfish and making it very hard to feel any connection to him at any point.

Attack The Block is ultimately a successful and enjoyable film that should please fans of horror and sci-fi, as well as anyone looking for decent homegrown British cinema. It's not without its faults, and doesn't succeed in everything it attempts, but Cornish's ambition and genuine talent as a writer and director deserves high praise - it's easy to forget when watching that this is his feature debut. Is it the next Shaun Of The Dead? No. But it doesn't need to be, nor does it try to be. What it definitely is, however, is a very promising start for a host of fresh British cinematic talent.


No comments: