Saturday, 14 May 2011

'Attack the Block' review:

The success of 'Attack the Block', a comedy-horror movie written and directed by Joe Cornish (of 'Adam & Joe' fame), was always going to hinge on how the director portrayed his protagonists: a gang of so-called "hoodies". The film is set on a South London council estate which is invaded by ravenous extra-terrestrial monsters and follows a group of youths as they attempt to defend their housing block with samurai swords, fireworks and whatever else they have to hand. It's sort of like 'The Goonies' meets 'Aliens' via 'Shaun of the Dead'. But since the earliest trailer, (for me at least) question marks have hung over whether the comedy was going to be derived mainly from cynically picking on the country's inner city poor - with nothing more than a string of cheap, tired and obvious jokes at the expense of a feckless group of stereotyped "chavs".

Yet whilst the film opens with our would-be "heroes" mugging a young woman at knife point, Cornish manages to strike a delicate balance between humanising his gang of hoodlums, moralising about their actions and poking fun at them, and in the end the film is pretty perfectly pitched. Yes, there are gags at the expense of the kids' social class: for instance the film revels in the absurdity of their "urban", youth culture patois. But the film also riffs on the speech patterns of white, middle class, West London stoners. Almost everything that isn't scary, or at least jumpy, is played for good natured laughs, and the film most definitely has its heart in the right place.

The young actors feel authentic and bring a measure of understated comic brilliance to their delivery. Especially Alex Esmail as Pest, who looks something like "Dappy" from N-Dubz (only he's funny on purpose). It's also great to see a British film which revels in locally specific detail and which focusses on a number of black characters. At a first glance it would seem that Cornish has made his debut film very much in the mould of friends Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg. Nick Frost has a supporting role and Cornish plays with Hollywood genre conventions - especially those of sci-fi and horror - throughout. The screenplay is peppered with pop culture references and, as with the likes of 'Hot Fuzz', humour is mostly drawn from contrasting everyday British banality with an improbable hi-octane situation, with the alien invasion prompting lines like "I've got one text left. This is too much madness to explain in one text."

Yet compared to the Pegg/Wright oeuvre, Cornish's film is less obviously a sustained pop culture geek-off, in spite of frequent references to video games such as Gears of War. Instead it works quite capably on a surface level - as a comedy with scary bits, even for those without an encyclopedic knowledge of the work of Steven Spielberg. The in-jokes lie under the surface - satisfying for those in the know, but not intruding on the film's tight structure and engaging forward momentum.

It's terrifically well realised too, especially in the early shots which frame the housing block as some sort of futuristic, science fiction obelisk, and trace the hallway strip lighting as if it were on the inside of a spaceship. As a setting the block is versatile and filled with several distinctive environments which cleverly break up the film's predominantly black and grey colour palette. The alien creatures themselves are really well designed and fairly frightening, and Cornish has admirably shunned a more commercial '12A' certificate by filling the film with some pretty visceral, over the top gore.

Far from being the sustained, middle class wink that I'd feared, 'Attack the Block' is the smart, funny and slickly produced feature that I'd hoped for. As a first time director, Joe Cornish has displayed a level of assuredness that is encouraging and - if he can resist the inevitable overtures of Hollywood (he has already co-written the upcoming 'Tintin' film) - his brand of eye-catching, socially conscious and unpretentious comedy could be a sizable boon for British cinema for years to come.

'Attack the Block' is out now across the UK and has been rated '15' by the BBFC.

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