“Iss rainin’ Gollums!” exclaims one of Attack the Block’s plucky, juvenile-delinquent protagonists, only he’s half right; it’s raining creatures from another world, but they’re bigger, more carnivorous, and even more single-minded than the Tolkien wretch. The “bigger brute than you planned for” joke is at least as old as vaudeville, probably older, and used judiciously in silent comedy (think of the street elevator gag from Chaplin’s City Lights). The humor in Attack the Block is always at least as broad. On the whole, the film is a shrewd, slickly made action comedy with undeniable mentorship from executive producer Edgar Wright, but directed with a steady hand and an eye for location by British comedian-writer-director Joe Cornish (The Adam and Joe Show), who also co-rewrote, with Wright, the script for Steven Spielberg’s Christmas 2011 tent pole, The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn.
More Bloody Kids than Super 8, more Assault on Precinct 13 than Jumanji, and, in the end, more Be Kind Rewind than Adventures in Babysitting, Attack the Block distinguishes itself from its genre compatriots by prizing theme and place over referentiality and hip, out-of-the-box grindhouse-ness. Hidden beneath the surface of a highly effective theme-park ride is a plainspoken evocation of life lived by idle teens in Brixton, the sci-fi storyline extending directly from the directionless minors’ desire to be a little heroic, a little bit powerful, and to be noticed for once. Picture Cloverfield played out in and around Mike Leigh’s egg-crate flats in All or Nothing, only replace privileged Manhattanite yupsters with the kids from The Goonies.
The story begins with a disconcerting reversal of expectations: a young woman (white, just getting off work, placed right into our sympathies) is mugged by a gang of adolescent street punks (mostly black, lower-class), but Cornish flips the switch by following the kids afterward, making us feel a bit like Louis C.K.’s character in the “Bully” episode of Louie, if that kid had discovered a crashlanded E.T. and tussled with it, killed it, and consequently provoked a large-scale retaliation from much larger, nastier beasties. The mugging incident remains with the film as a festering sore, as the victim, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), crosses paths with the gang a second time; she fingers them to the police (or “the feds” to the kids), she’s rescued by them, then they by her, feelings are vented, resentments are aired, and so on. Sam gets her “I was born in Brooklyn” moment (cf. John Savage in Do the Right Thing), but she’s effectively shut down when she proudly namechecks her boyfriend, who works for the Red Cross in Uganda (“Why doesn’t he help kids in Brixton?”).
All of which may sound a bit heavy, but it isn’t; the film’s breakneck pace ensures that all such talk is dispensed with between gasps for breath and sprints across apartment-block skyways. As Moses, young newcomer John Boyega emerges as a charismatic antihero, his Napoleon Wilson anger as inchoate as any kid’s at that age; he may make bad choices, but his need for validation remains justified. On that note, what may be most remarkable about Attack the Block is that it shows compassion to these kids, but stops well short of condescension. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Cornish pulls it off, in no small part due to the nearly invisible way he finds a unique character in each kid (as well as in each of the ancillary characters, down to the “littler punks” who tread in the gang’s wake, the woman who consoles Sam after her attack, and the brilliantly naturalistic girls who orbit the gang), and his knack for disarming, broad humor, which easily leavens any sociological subtext. Did I mention there’s no shortage of blood spatter and bone-crunching? Take that, bootleg-ass Sucker Punch.
The script obeys the victory-over-the-Other conventions it took stock in from the beginning (where Sam and Moses’s gang incorrectly regard each other as the Other), but its pleasures are considerable. Cornish gets a ton of mileage from the kids’ foul-mouthed dialogue, as well as his prismatic view of his slate of characters and their circumstances, preferring to shimmy around rote psychologizing and going straight for gesture, intonation, and choice vocabulary. While one of the quasi-patois/gangsta-speaking kids is white, that fact only highlights the way each character is performing and dressing up in one way or another, and that their role, their habitat, their options, are often well worth defending. Perhaps what truly distinguishes this raucous crowd-pleaser is the way it refuses simply to write a blank check in celebration of community and togetherness (the kind of overemphatic, congratulatory gesture that no audience could ever earn, but that most movies dole out anyway), but, instead, more earnestly celebrates the tenuous possibility of community. At the end of the day, you still have the pushers, the feds, and a whole lot of outer space to contend with.