Thursday, October 27, 2011

Shouldn't it Be "Defend the Block"?

I wonder if it was a stroke of good luck or bad luck that "Attack the Block" was released so close in time to last summer's London riots. Recent events certainly made the movie more relevant, but it also made the young heroes, a group of teenagers from "The Block," a council estate in South London, seem less sympathetic in retrospect. Not that the filmmakers ever try to paint their young subjects as angels. In the opening sequence, five boys led by the grim-faced Moses (John Boyega) mug a young nurse named Sam (Jodie Whittaker), making off with her purse, phone, and jewelry. However, by the end of the movie we'll get to know the kids, and find out they're also brave, resourceful, loyal, and perfectly redeemable.

Because when push comes to shove, Moses and his gang play by the rules - well, by their own rules, which can seem pretty arbitrary and nonsensical to outsiders. It's much like the shorthand slang that they use, punctuated by exclamations like "Believe it!" and "I'm not even lying!" that takes a little while for an unfamiliar audience to adjust to. The push comes in the form of an alien creature that smashes into Earth, interrupting the mugging and drawing the attention of the gang. And the shove would be the pack of other aliens that follow, that launch an attack on the Block and threaten all of its residents. Of course nobody believes the boys about the alien invasion, so they take matters into their own hands, gathering weapons to go into battle and protect their turf.

The kids playing the gang members are all newcomers or have few other screen credits, including Alex Esmail as the talkative Pest, Franz Drameh as the scowling Dennis, Leeon Jones as bespectacled Jerome, and Simon Howard as Biggz, who is heard on the phone assuring his mother he'll be home by ten. They bring a lot of energy and authenticity to the film, embodying threatening hoodlums, disrespectful brats, and sympathetic kids trying to do the right thing, as necessary. Michael Ajao and Sammy Williams also tag along as a pair of younger kids, who ape the badassery of their elders for comic relief. For many, the only familiar face will be Nick Frost, playing an affable stoner who deals marijuana out of a penthouse flat for a truly dangerous adult gangster, Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). However the standout of the cast is John Boyega, who has this wonderfully stoic, thoughtful presence. As Moses he provides real focus and leadership to his group, and proves capable of being far more than just a bully or a gangster.

But this is an alien invasion movie, and of course dear reader, you want to hear about the action. Well it's great. Even without the alien threat, the kids (and the camera) are constantly in motion, bouncing around in stairwells, racing through the streets on bikes and scooters, and ducking the police. But when the aliens do show up, I love the look of them. Instead of little green men or bipedal insects, we get a pack of big, quadrupedal, black furred beasts, snapping at their prey with glowing, fang-studded maws. They're mean and vicious, chewing through a couple of hapless policemen in seconds. The gang goes after them with baseball bats, a borrowed katana, fireworks, and big attitudes, and quickly find themselves in over their heads. Like "Super 8" earlier this year, it's refreshing to find a film where the kids face down real, serious danger, giving them a chance to trade in conventional posturing and platitudes for meatier moments of heroism.

But that brings us back to the news of the day, where the real world youngsters the "Attack the Block" kids were based on, spent several nights terrorizing London and surrounding areas in August. Does this underline the need for more media like "Attack the Block," to try and bridge the gap between these alienated youth and the mainstream public? Or does it mean that the is movie too flippant and overly idealistic about the social ills it touches on? Learning that Moses and the gang are really good kids after all is an awfully blunt, simplistic moral that doesn't go down so easy, given the circumstances. Or am I reading way too much into a modest action movie that just wants to give us a peek into an unfamiliar youth culture?

At any rate, the movie is a lot of fun. The action's a blast. The jokes are smart. The young actors all did a great job. You can't ask for more than that in a kid-centric science-fiction adventure movie.

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