Attack the blog

I was going to be an obedient film critic and wait until Attack The Block was released (May 13 in the UK) before writing about it, but as it’s aimed at the young people, the film company are not only happy for us to write about it in advance, they’re all for it. I saw it last night. Its writer and director, Joe Cornish, introduced it, which was nice of him, although it can sometimes make critics either resentful or over-nice if they know that the filmmaker is in the building, neither of which is a helpful outcome. Let’s remain calm. (I know Joe reasonably well, having handed over the reins of Radio 4’s film programme Back Row to him when I left in 2005, during which period we saw each other a fair bit. I am also an unashamed fan of he and Adam’s oeuvre, as you know.) Attack The Block, which is essentially a comic horror movie with a social conscience, is very good indeed.

In his intro, and in other interviews I’ve read elsewhere, Joe made clear that his aim with his debut feature was to take his love of 80s creature features like Gremlins, Tremors and Critters – and “gang” capers like The Goonies and Stand By Me – and give it a more modern, urban setting, namely, the Brixton-Stockwell-Kennington triangle in South London where he’s lived for years. He’s done this by staging a malevolent alien invasion in a council estate, the “block” of the title. His heroes are five teenage hoodies, of mixed race but united by the exaggerated black hip-hop patois spoken by all streetwise British youths, and by an us-and-them attitude to authority, in particular the police (or “the Feds” as they are apparently now called on estates). These five characters are all played by newcomers to screen acting, recruited by Joe and his producers to bring authenticity to the characters as they posture and pose and project their personalities. This is clearly a defence mechanism. A form of male machismo that has preoccupied adolescent boys since the dawn of time. It is not new, but the sense of violence at its heart is.

If, in real life, you find the way kids today speak – in what is surely the ultimate counter-racist argot, in that all kids, from white to black, speak it – you may initially recoil, as Attack The Block drops us into a confrontation whereby the five Goonies, led by Moses (John Boyega), pull scarves over their faces and mug Jodie Whittaker’s lone nurse, on her way home to the block where she also lives. These are not sympathetic characters. They intimidate a young woman, five against one, and a blade is flashed. Surely, you wonder to yourself, we’re not supposed to like these kids? Well, yes you are.

What Joe has done here that’s brilliant is make life difficult for his audience. Or at least, his adult audience. It’s entirely possible that teenage audiences will identify with the muggers, and with their street smarts. But you could identify with the drug dealers in The Wire because they were presented realistically and frankly. There are reasons why some kids grow up to be drug dealers and hoodlums on BMX bikes (and in one humorous case in Attack The Block, a pizza delivery moped), and some kids don’t. Cornish isn’t letting them all off. He’s just saying: look at where they live. No, actually, look inside it. While the perhaps over-caricatured posh white dope-smoker (Luke Treadaway) slums it and takes the nasty old lift up to the floor where his friendly dealer (Nick Frost) works, the council block rarely takes a central role in an action movie. Does anybody remember a 90s film called Downtime, a woeful British disaster movie set in a council block lift? It didn’t work because it wasn’t a glamorous setting. Attack The Block works because it bends familiar action-movie tropes and makes them fit in a council estate.

Joe Cornish has two weapons. One is a working knowledge of how action movies work. The other is humour. Get past the patois and the five hoodies are, to varying degrees, very funny. Either they’re afraid of their mums, or they fancy themselves, or they just see the world through videogame/action movie eyes. When the aliens arrive, one of them says it’s “raining Gollums.” This is very funny. It doesn’t say, ha ha, listen to the stupid boy, it’s just a funny line and it tells us that kids look through a prism of popular culture. While the siege scenes are handled with supreme vivacity and grit, it’s the dialogue – and by association, the naturalistic acting from the five leads – that gives Attack The Block its edge over any number of other films that involve one group of beings battling another. I can’t quote chunks of it, as it’s said in that street manner that doesn’t translate to the page. Yes, there are guns (the block’s kingpin Hi-Hatz, played by Jumayn Hunter – who was, ironically, in Eden Lake, which I liked but which simplistically used hoodies as feral, Deliverance-style demons – is tooled up; but this is countered by the two younger kids, Props and Mayhem, who have a water pistol), but the aliens are clearly beyond being shot, and must be defeated, as per tradition, by cunning and cleverness.

Clearly I’m going to give no plot points away, but I wouldn’t be going out on a limb to say that redemption, of sorts, takes place. Someone on Twitter asked me how a film which starts with five young men mugging a young woman could ever earn our empathy. Have you ever seen a film before where a bad character comes good? Yes, so have I.

Obviously I wanted to like Attack The Block, because it’s a first-time film by a talented broadcaster and writer whose continued success in Hollywood may lead to more radio work for me. And Joe’s a nice guy. But if I’d come away feeling it was a sound debut, maybe a “solid three stars”, that would have been a satisfactory outcome for all of us. To have been able to wish Joe further success would have been sufficient. (That’s sort of how I felt about Richard Ayoade’s Submarine: clearly his career will bear even greater fruit.) But it’s a four-star movie. A four-star movie that I have already read an as-yet unpublished one-star review for. It may well divide as well as conquer.

I fully accept that the grim, South London setting, and the street language, will not be to everyone’s taste. But this is not class tourism. If anything, it gives a voice to a generation, and a strata of society, who are usually marginalised by fiction. And that’s no small thing. It will not miraculously make me feel any more comfortable when I am next forced to pass by a small gang of kids on bikes in South London with their hoods up, but maybe that’s my prejudice as much as its their inherent malevolence.

I overheard two earnest-sounding men in the British Library canteen talking about it the other day. One had never heard of it, the other was enthusing about how, finally, underprivileged kids who live on estates would finally have a film that does them justice and give them a positive spin. I think I can see what he means. But don’t watch Attack The Block out of a spurious need for political roughage; watch it (from May 13), because it’s scary and funny.

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11 thoughts on “Attack the blog

  1. Great review. I can’t wait to see this one. I love Adam and Joe. I believe Joe was actually mugged in South London, which was the inspiration for the script. I’m looking forward to Tin Tin as well.

  2. I was recently walking through the decaying urban wasteland that is South Wales, and chanced upon the following conversation:

    “Man, my patois is SO exaggerated black hip-hop. It’s mah favourite way to talk.”
    “True dat, Colin. True dat”.

    I often frequent the IMDb forums though, and there are several people – Americans, surprisingly enough – who have actually asked, based upon the trailer, if the film comes with English subtitles. I was tempted to respond that some of the US accents, like the heavy Deep South or Cajun ones, can equally be difficult to understand for us, but as one of the few visitors to the thread who wasn’t an insular xenophobic cliché I decided not to. I was thinking of giving them a crash course in the parlance by pointing them towards Kelly in ‘Misfits’, but I fear their heads may have imploded!

  3. What an excellent review. I’ve been eagerly awaiting Joe’s directorial debut and had heard it would be different from what many might expect from one half of Adam&Joe. Having read this review I’m positively salivating.

  4. Liked your review, Andrew. The trailer looks great… apart from the way they speak.
    As you point out, the patois crosses boundaries of race, and the trailer shows enough sides of the gang for me to know they’ll end up “heroes” in one way or another, so my usual self-checkboxes of needless discrimination are coming up empty. I think it’s just that I find that manner of speech deeply irritating that makes me not want to watch it. Can’t explain it, sadly.

    I suspect I might miss a great movie because of something so trivial 😦

    We’ll see, though.

  5. “If, in real life, you find the way kids today speak – in what is surely the ultimate counter-racist argot, in that all kids, from white to black, speak it – you may initially recoil”

    That sentence needs a another word doesn’t it?

    I will watch this as I love Joe’s stuff, but the patois thing makes me feel old. My parents (both Scots) steered me away from my local Lincolnshire dialect and I now thank them for it.

  6. I’ve been looking forward to this for 18 months, so I was very excited to watch the trailer. Have to say I was pretty underwhelmed, even a bit put off. I suspect this is not the film a lot of A&J geeks are hoping for, it looks far too broad, borderline cutesy even. It also looks to have all the ingredients of a breakout summer hit. I reckon Cornish has made sure his (belated) first crack at a feature won’t be his last and played it safe. I fear we’ll be on 8 week annual rations of 6 Music from here on…

  7. Andrew, I am relieved you like it… I was just a little bit worried that the A&J fanboy in me was going to be disappointed.

    I was really looking forward to this film…. Now I can’t wait.

  8. Personally, the characters never did enough to earn my sympathy, and I could not help feel that their predicament was just deserts.

    Even at the end of the film, the boy is reluctant to give the ring back – an item which they viscously stole from the nurse under mortal threat – and only mellows his hate for the dope-smoking-white-middle-class-buffoon in return for skins with which he may role a joint!

    At the end I was left thinking: these boys would not – after having gone through this ordeal – refrain from violently mugging another innocent person. While this would be excusable if the film were of a different genre, it does not work in this instance; and in my opinion the characterisation is thereby botched.

  9. A positive spin? You overheard a conversation between two men that you would characterise as earnest sounding.. Well that would be earnestness turned all the way up to eleven. Wouldn’t it?

    That thugs are capable of empathy and out-group prejudice is not news. Thugs are as human as you are. But please; this film validates nothing, gives voice to nothing, other than a thoroughly and almost exclusively white middle class liberal idea of life in the shitty bits of town. So yes, it is a form of class tourism, it verges on condescension.

    Still, I’ll take left-wing liberals over conservatives, libertarians and pearl clutching Daily Mail readers in an instant. Plus somewhere in the screenplay: “it smells like a shit did a shit” That’s class that is.

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