May 25th, 2011
Turns out it’s easily the most enjoyable new movie I’ve seen all year – a creature feature that’s as tight and energetic as Edgar Wright’s cinematic efforts, if less overtly referential.
According to writer/director Joe Cornish, the idea was to take kids who would be described as feral and heartless by the tabloid press and put them up against creatures that actually exemplify these traits. This theme is flagged up in an unsubtle line of dialogue near the start of the movie (courtesy of an obligingly distressed old lady no less!) but judging by some of the reviews this approach wasn’t blatant enough.
For example, this Daily Record review is pretty fucked up, even for something that was printed in a paper that’s written by and for idiots. Here’s the first line:
IF movie anti-heroes are to work, it’s crucial they make us understand, admire or identify with them. Think Dirty Harry, Mad Max or Dexter Morgan — bad guys we love for taking out even badder guys.
Which… okay, here’s a different way of saying that:
IF movie anti-heroes are to work, it’s crucial they let me live out my insane white guy fantasies about killing people for a good cause.
At least the reviewer didn’t waste any time before getting to the mad stuff, eh? Still, fucked as that opening is, I think it was this one that broke me:
Robbing a defenceless nurse (Jodie Whitaker) early on, these are kids deserving not our empathy but 18 months inside. And without parole.
Yeah, you read that right. Those young (mostly black) kids who shake up the nice (white) nurse and take her phone, ring and money? Well, they’re obviously UNLOVABLE BEASTS, not like that nice (white) Dexter Morgan, who only kills baddies and who has a nice (white) smile. Sure, he might have racked up a few bodies in his time, but that’s okay – no jail for him, just a few lovely (white) hugs from other lovely (white) psychopaths!
(It’s not that I don’t enjoy Dexter by the way, but if you can “admire or identify” with the main character of that show… well, that’s fine, but you might as well start empathising with Badrock or Violator as far as I’m concerned.)
In addition to the tedious tabloid scare mongering (“the result is cheap, unexciting and shake-your-head-wondering-about-the-state-of-Britain depressing” indeed!), there’s also the squiffy question of genre to contend with. Attack The Block isn’t about a hero with blood on his shoelaces or any of that bollocks, it’s more concerned with loyalty. Loyalty to people, places and genre, with the kids’ fierce attachment to each other and their block mirrored by Cornish’s attachment to the tropes of the movies he loves.
These two forms of loyalty are synthesised in the movie’s best scenes: the brilliantly orchestrated tooling up sequence near the start of the movie and the tense walk up the smoke-filled corridor near the end. You’ve seen directors make these moves before, but never in this building, or with characters like these. Cornish and co make sure you feel this as you race down that staircase with them, or follow them into the smog.
Also, for all that the gang can be cold or dismissive towards their victim-turned-accomplice Sam, it’s hard not to warm to them over the course of the movie. They’re overexcited and funny, they obviously care about one another and the naive mix of friendliness and hostility they show towards Sam just adds a level of moral complexity to the piece. God save us from that, right?
While Attack The Block is a genre piece, rather than a work of social realism, it still gets across the psychology of its protagonists with an admirable clarity. John Boyega’s Moses is particularly well observed, both on the level of script and performance. I’ve spent the past few paragraphs arguing against the idea that this is a failed anti-hero movie, but as Film Crit Hulk’s review makes clear, there’s an altogether different sort of heroism to this character:
WHAT WOULD IT TAKE FOR YOU TO PICK UP A GUN, SWORD, WHATEVER THE HELL, AND RUN OUT IN FRONT TO DEFEND YOUR FRIENDS? TO LEGITIMATELY SACRIFICE YOURSELF.
… THINK ABOUT IT.
IT SOMETHING PEOPLE SEE TIME AND TIME AGAIN IN MOVIES AND YET IT SOMETHING WE NEVER REALLY QUESTION WITH OUR OWN LIVES. WHAT WOULD IT TAKE FOR YOU TO DEFEND YOUR FRIENDS? THE MOST OBVIOUS EXAMPLE IS THE MILITARY. GRANTED, THE MILITARY AND THE REASONS FOR JOINING OFTEN PAINTED IN ROSES. IN BRUTAL HONESTY, LOTS JOIN BECAUSE THEY WANT TO KILL STUFF, IT WAS FORCED ON THEM, OR MOST OFTEN THEY JUST NEED THE MONEY. BUT LOST IN THESE CYNICAL REASONS ARE THE THOUSANDS OF MEN AND WOMEN FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE WHO JOIN TO CONTRIBUTE TO SOMETHING BIGGER THAN THEMSELVES. IT’S HEADY, HONORABLE STUFF. SOMETHING THAT THE POSH, LIBERALLY MINDED WORLD OF HULK AND EVERYONE ELSE FORGET. SACRIFICE = REAL. BUT IF OFTEN TAKE A FLAWED, INTERESTING, AND DEEPLY WOUNDED KIND OF PERSONALITY TO GET TO THAT PLACE OF SACRIFICE. IT RARELY A WHOLLY NOBLE PURSUIT.
AND HULK HATE TO BREAK IT TO YOU, BUT YOU ALSO MEET A LOT OF THESE HEROIC PERSONALITIES IN INNER CITIES.
AND OFTEN THEY IN GANGS.
The fact that a lot of Moses’ aggression is ill-directed and unsettling is underlined in every ragged exchange between Sam and Moses’ group, but Attack the Block at least has the courage to take these characters on their own terms, to present them without either condescending to them or hectoring the audience on their behalf.
But what about the monsters, eh? Well, thankfully, the film gets them right as well:
There’s no flash to these fuckers, just a few well chosen shapes in the darkness and the threat of violence that is realised at exactly the right moment. Thinking about it, these multipurpose face munchers are a microcosm of the whole movie – they’re simple, functional, they make great use of their environment, but they can also take a bit of sociological weight if you want them to.
Not bad for a group of fresh faces and a director who first came to my attention when he was titting around with his toys back in the 90s then, eh?