Dead End Kids N’ The Hood
Attack The Block UK 2011
Directed by Joe Cornish
Playing at cinemas now.
Unwarning: This one's pretty much spoiler free.
Well now. I don’t know who this Joe Cornish person is but I do know that the movie he’s just released is going to be giving me a very hard time when it comes to reviewing this thing here. I’m really torn on this one... I’m not even sure where to begin to be honest. Bear with me here folks.
Okay... let me start off by identifying what, on the surface, this movie is about and then let me attempt to identify what it really is if I can get my fingers under the edges and peel back the layers somewhat. Because, at first glance, this movie is a straight-forward piece of horror/science fiction movie-making. The basic set up goes like this... a gang of nasty youths who are our main protagonists mug a woman who is the main female protagonist... she is saved from possible injury, however, by the distraction caused when an alien crash lands to earth and “has a go” at our would-be muggers and thugs... or “our heroes” as we seem encouraged to think of them. They pursue and kill said alien but a whole load of bigger, hairier aliens (with really cool, green fluorescent teeth) arrive and go after the gang, following them back to their block where they combat the alien menace as best they can with the aid of the woman they originally mugged.
Hmm... okay. That’s the basic set-up and takes you about a quarter of an hour into the movie. But as you can probably tell, even from my little potted synopsis right their, I had some issues with this movie. So let me start at the beginning and tell you my problems with things and hopefully I’ll remember to tell you why this is also a real gem of a genre movie and then you can weigh in on things yourself and make your own minds up. This may just be a slow courtship of hate with me at this point before I slowly fall in love with this movie.
From the trailer, Attack The Block looks like a mindless sci-fi comedy which will leave you on a high when you leave the cinema. Well as far as my experience of the movie went, it isn’t a comedy, it may deal with mindless characters but it is in no way mindless itself and it probably won’t leave you on a high unless you happen to be easily mollified by tribal support and share the same kind of mindset as many of the characters in this movie.
Allow me to clarify that last set of statements.
Is it a comedy? No... it’s not. Why? Because it’s really not very funny... but, I hasten to add that, despite the obvious box office draw of comedian Nick Frost playing a minor supporting role in the movie (a role the trailer makes a lot more of than the film itself does)... I really don’t think the movie is really trying to be funny either. Oh sure, their are the odd one liners and comic moments but these are mostly confined to the realm of the “everyday banter” and are not given any specific comic leanings by the direction and tone of the movie. So to be fair, I think my conclusion that this movie is, you know, not funny... is not going to be a real problem for anyone involved with the film. It’s just misdirected marketing... probably deliberate so it can attract a certain kind of audience and then hope that the sector of the market going purely for a laugh fix will become interested enough in the movie that they’ll forget they went to the cinema to see a comedy.
Secondly... yeah, many of the characters are mindless thugs who are both hard and easy to sympathise with (relax, I’ll get to it in a minute) and it’s because of who these characters are... and the film's unwillingness to write them off as lovable guys, that the movie takes a more intelligent approach to the way these kinds of characters are handled than they would be in something which deals with similar, more likable but ultimately less compelling characters in movies like Anuvahood. And I’ll come back to this again in a minute but let me just deal with that third point...
This certainly isn’t a feel good movie, although there are an amazing amount of very clichéd but very tidy "bonding moments with a pay off" scattered throughout the last half an hour or so of the film which are very much there to make everybody feel hunky dory. Little scenes like the middle-class yuppie hoodie-wannabe finally getting accepted into a group that would have eaten his lame attitude for breakfast at the opening of the film or the two nine year old characters who finally get taken seriously and get themselves called by their “street names” finally by an older member of “the pack”. The ending, however, is an entirely different matter and it’s almost like these little moments during the movie have been put there to numb down the ending of the movie somewhat. Don’t get me wrong here... it’s not a completely no-one-gets-out-of-here-alive kind of ending but it’s certainly a bit of a downer which has been, perhaps a little too blatantly, dressed up and disguised by smoke and mirrors into seeming to be... well, not such a downer of an ending after all. I’m not going to reveal the tone of the ending here but... well nothing is quite cut and dried in this movie and the more I think about that, the more I like it... I think.
Which leads me back to my main bugbear about the film which is this. None of the male cast (or very few of them) are people with whom a non-criminal audience can really, morally afford to sympathise with. Right throughout the first 20 or so minutes of this movie, all I was thinking was, seriously... you want us to sympathise with people who will mug someone in the street with a knife... threaten them and take their valuables and cherished possessions. Why would we do that?
But then Cornish gets kinda smart because, even as you spend more time with these characters and get to know them and perhaps start feeling just a little comfortable with them... the movie reminds you about just who they are. The woman who was mugged by them at the start is certainly not going to forget it and rams their insidious, thug-like nature down their throats at every opportunity. Which is a good thing because... if the writer/director (who happen to be the same person on this one) hadn’t done that, I would be really laying into this film right now on moral grounds. The moment they kind of let that go a little (with the victim actually thanking the leader of the gang for giving her her own ring back) is not too hard to watch... although it’s still a bit of a mis-step in an otherwise cracking little movie.
Back in the thirties there was a series of films about The Dead End Kids... who I think started off opposite Cagney in Angels With Dirty Faces. They were also quite unsympathetic youths in many ways but still millions of movie goers flocked to their local cinemas to see them back in their day. I think the charm of the characters kinda shows through sometimes and the context of their misdeeds in a movie can sometimes allow for unwanted sympathetic response from the audience... and perhaps even empathy... to blend through. I think these guys in Attack The Block are a little bit like The Dead End Kids in the thirties. You don’t necessarily want to feel sympathy with them but the charisma of the actors in their roles is something which will reel you in anyway. At one point in the movie the main female protagonist, Sam, rightly points out the absolute unredeemed stupidity and her lack of sympathy for them when the gang leader, Moses, tries to apologise by relenting that they wouldn’t have mugged her if they’d have known she lives in the same block as them. But still... while these vicious thugs didn’t entirely have my sympathies (I would have liked to have seen them all eaten by aliens very quickly) they aren’t unfeeling characters... some of them have real heart. This kind of double standard which doesn’t really hold up in the cold light of day, is something which the movies do a lot and they do attempt to all the time manipulate you into perceiving situations, events and characters in the way the director and producers want you to see them... on their terms. After all... in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America, De Niro’s character running with his gang of thugs is seen taking part in the brutal rape of the girl he loves... but the film is shot and presented in such a way that even after this fact has come to light, the audience still feels sympathy for him. Don’t ask me how... but then again, Leone was a bit of a poetic magician when it came to making movies.
But now that I’ve got my main problem with the movie out of the way, that being that the so-called heroes of the movie are pond-scum thugs who you wouldn’t give the time of day to in a real life situation unless you were forced to by them at knifepoint... let me tell you what else this movie is... just very briefly.
Attack The Block is a bit of a technical tour de force, it has to be said. Hitchcockian, almost, in the unusual angles that it picks out for a lot of its shots, its bold choices are matched confidently and comfortably by the editing, which ensures that none of those shots jar and jolt you out of the pacing of the movie... even though, by rights, they should do. I think a lot of this is to do with the syrupy, gluing effect of the urban dancey soundtrack which helps smooth over any sudden changes in shot design and quite definitely cuts along with the beat to match the visual rhythm to the one pumping out too loud on the speakers of your local cinema. Quite brilliantly, in fact.
So technically brilliant and, as it happens, filled with some really great performances by loads of very charismatic and virtually unknown actors. There’s really not a false step among any of them... in fact, Nick Frost who is always pretty good sticks out a bit more as being a lot less naturalistic than the majority of the people on the shoot... and he’s really not bad in it either. This film is really well cast.
So would I recommend it? Well, if you can get around the challenge that the film is mostly populated by vicious thugs who, in the modern parlance of our time, are quite often complete numptys and actually learn to observe them on their own terms... then yeah, it’s actually a nice little genre horror/action film that only a British director would have been able to pull off with the lightness of touch that this Cornish bloke seems to bring to it. But it’s no great masterpiece either... just a very impressively put together entertainment piece which allows the audience the intelligence to condemn the characters and situations while still asking us to “play the game” a little in the absence of a more potent Pavlovian reflex. If you’ve nothing better to go and see right at the moment, then Attack The Block is probably worth taking the time to go and have a look at.