Comedian Joe Cornish’s directorial debut presents a couple of challenges from the outset. The first is that its protagonists are an essentially unlikeable bunch of hoodies whose first onscreen act is the mugging of a nurse walking home from her shift, who are incapable of construction a sentence that doesn’t start with “yo” and end with “bruv” or “blood” – worse, delivered in a Sahf End Lahndan accent so that “blood” comes out as “blahd”. “Yo, blahd”, “wassup, blahd”, etc etc. Oh, and they also use weapons grade quantities of American gangsta-speak. Personal bugbear, but I just can’t understand why British kids want to act like they’re East Coast. East Coast may have a certain underworld cachet in the States, but all East Coast means in the UK is crap holiday resorts. Bridlington, Cleethorpes, Maplethorpe, Skegness. “Yo, blahd, we is da Ingoldmells Massiv.” What the fuck?
Oooops, sorry. Rant over.
The second challenge is that the material is so old-school, the homages so plentiful and the basic set-up so patently absurd that – along with the advertising campaign that bigs it up as the new ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (word to the wise: ‘Hot Fuzz’ is the new ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and we’ll leave it at that, shall we?) – that my expectations ran to a fast-paced, irreverent, laugh-out-loud funny slab of creature-feature mayhem. And while ‘Attack the Block’ ticks some of these boxes, Cornish’s script gets too wrapped up in lionizing his hoodie gang heroes (yup, he insists, come the denouement, on painting them as heroes) that he often forgets he’s supposed to be making a knowingly ironic horror-comedy with a deliberate B-movie aesthetic.
The pre-credits sequence has Sam (Jodie Whittaker) robbed at knifepoint by Moses (John Boyega) – his name, given his final act of courageous leadership, is staggeringly unsubtle – Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones) and Biggz (Simon Howard), during which attack another attack occurs (see what I did there?) and our lovable rascals find themselves battling aliens who plummet to earth during a Bonfire Night fireworks display.
Sorry to labour a point here (I actually enjoyed much about the film, honest!) but the suggestion if you rob a lone woman by pulling a knife on her and knocking her to the pavement, she should somehow be grateful that she wasn’t raped or killed into the bargain is a concept I’m having a fuckton of trouble trying to get my head round. I’m also throwing up a big fat “does not compute” at the knowledge that Cornish was one mugged in like manner and started to wonder whether his aggressors weren’t in fact as scared as he was. Now, I’ve been on the receiving end of hoodie thuggery myself (one punch to the face, one attempted boot to the kidneys which I fortunately managed to deflect), and I can tell you that with a film crew and a budget at my disposal, my artistic response would have been closer to ‘Harry Brown’ than ‘Attack the Block’!
Anyway, Moses and his crew are attacked by something that looks like it didn’t quite make the casting call for ‘Alien’. They respond by tracking it down to a kids’ playground and kicking the shit out of it under a climbing frame. Kudos to Cornish and his DoP Thomas Townend: they turn in some pseudo-iconic Spielbergian imagery while at the same time effectively pointing up the absurdity of the moment. (Similarly, a scene where one of the gang straps a samurai sword to his back, straddles a motorcycle and roars off to get some payback is wonderfully puncture by a cut that shows him puttering away on a 10cc moped with a pizza-delivery box on the back decorated with a learner driver sticker.)
Sorry, another digression there. Anyway, they haul the extraterrestrial corpse back to their council estate apartment block, Wyndham Tower*, where they stow it in Ron’s weed room (“What’s Ron’s weed room?” “It’s a big room full of weed. And it’s Ron’s”) while they figure out the best way to fiscally exploit their find. The lugubrious Ron (Nick Frost) works for edgy crime boss Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) who, after a misunderstanding, decides he wants Moses’s head on a plate. As do the police, since Sam has by now reported the mugging.
Meanwhile, the alien invasion is gearing up in fine style and the boys find themselves public enemies numbers one to five as far as the invaders are concerned. A word on the aliens: they’re a terrific creation, midnight-black furballs with claws like tungsten carbide blades and teeth that glow with electric-blue light. Cornish’s script picks up and he sends his cast hurtling round Wyndham Towers as they try to find sanctuary, rescue cut-off members of the party and find a way to defeat their furry nemeses. Imagine the grimy locale of Ken Loach’s ‘Ladybird Ladybird’ shot like something out of a Michael Bay film, crawling with the non-human cast of ‘Critters’ (only given a serious upgrade) and everyone locked into a siege situation a la John Carpenter in which a bunch of kids give the adults a Joe Dante-like run-around and ultimately save the day.
This latter aspect works the best, with a frenetically edited moped/pushbike chase vying with a fireworks-as-incendiaries kids vs aliens smackdown as the film’s high point. Credit where it’s due, also, to Cornish’s facility with actors – most of the cast are making their debut here. Of the professionals, Jodie Whittaker makes for an appealing and unsentimental heroine while Nick Frost provides his dependable line of laid-back schtick in an essentially there-for-a-few-belly-laughs role. The man of the match award, however, goes jointly to Sammy Williams and Michael Ajao as, respectively, Probs and Mayhem, a pair of little kids who gleefully embrace the chaos as an opportunity to cut loose and be badasses. God love you, fellas: here’s to the film career you deserve.
‘Attack the Block’ is entertaining. It’s slick, it’s energetic and it doesn’t outstay its welcome (running time: one hour seventeen minutes if you don’t count the ludicrously interminable end credits). It looks great and it bodes well for Cornish’s future as a director. But it’s difficult to get round the fact that, as a horror-comedy, it misses more often than it hits where the comedy is concerned. It’s clever in its construction and the way in which the kids take the fight back to the aliens, but none of this cleverness makes it as far as the dialogue which, with only a couple of exceptions, is devoid of the witty, hip, eminently quotable lines that this kind of material cries out for.
If the filmmakers had gone full-on, one way or the other, and made it funnier or nastier, ‘Attack the Block’ might have achieved cult classic status. As it is, there’s tonal dichotomy that never reconciles. Still, Cornish delivers a hoodie horror movie where the hoodies aren’t the monster, so I guess that’s something.
*Pay attention to place names – they add up to a beautifully sustained in-joke that proves to be the single cleverest thing in the movie.