AUSTIN – Joe Cornish is a name that may not be familiar to genre audiences around the world, but all of that is set to change with the release of his remarkable new film “Attack The Block,” a spirited mix of teen gang drama, SF monster movie, and hero’s journey, told in a dense vernacular and shot with the style of early vintage Carpenter. It is entirely successful, and it announces Cornish as someone worthy of attention and a long filmography.
Cornish, for those unfamiliar with his work, is probably best-known so far for his work on “The Adam and Joe Show” in the UK, but later this year, he’ll have a credit as the co-writer (with Edgar Wright) of “The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” and he and Wright are also still working on their “Ant-Man” script as well. None of the work he’s had produced in the past could have really prepared viewers for “Attack The Block,” though. It’s one of those films that feels like the work of a seasoned veteran, someone who had learned how to finesse their vision onto the bigscreen. It’s confident, it manages to blend genre with ease, and it coheres beautifully.
The film features a few familiar faces for fans of UK films. Jodie Whittaker was Peter O’Toole’s focus in “Venus,” and she’s also been seen in films like “Good” and “St. Trinian’s,” while co-star Luke Treadaway has shown up in “Heartless” and “Clash Of The Titans.” Probably the best-known cast-member is Nick Frost, but don’t go into “Attack The Block” expecting anything like his earlier films or roles. This movie’s far more interested in the largely unknown cast that is front and center, a bunch of inner-city kids growing up in UK public housing blocks. They are a convenient demon for the press, the English equivalent to the South Central LA kids of the ’90s, bad guys by virtue of where they live and how they look.
As in those LA gang movies, there is a code of behavior and dress and even language that unites the kids of “Attack The Block,” and it feels completely authentic. These are not the kids that filmmakers cast as heroes in their movies, and that’s exactly what Cornish has done here. It feels radical, and I would imagine that when this opens in the UK in May, there will be a ferocious response from people who have never seen themselves in this sort of film before.
The film begins with a mugging. Led by Moses (John Boyega), a group of teenage boys corner Sam (Whittaker) in the street and take her phone, her purse, and even a ring she’s wearing. She tries to fight back, but just as things are about to get out of hand, something falls from the sky and destroys a car. Sam uses the moment to escape, and Moses decides to investigate the wreckage. A strange creature of some sort erupts from the smoking car, scratching Moses in the process, and he leads his friends in a hunt for it. They find it in a storage shed and kill it. Once it’s dead, they get a good long look at what obviously didn’t come from anyplace on Earth, and they decide to keep the corpse and try to make some money off of it.
That’s really just the first ten minutes, and in just those first few scenes, you get a real sense of how these kids work together, how they rely on one another, and the way they play both to and against stereotype. Cornish turns the stakes up quickly, as more things start to fall from the sky, and the design of the things that come out of these other crash sites are much bigger and much scarier than the thing the boys killed. They also seem determined to find Moses and his boys, no matter how many people they have to tear through to do it.
The film is wildly effective, and part of the reason it works so well is because Cornish keeps things moving while still giving his characters time to breathe. They never feel like a laundry list of victims waiting for their turn to be eaten by whatever generic monster is stalking them. Instead, the people all feel real, and the dynamics between them are constantly shifting. Eventually Sam and Moses run into each other again, and despite the mugging that starts the film, a common ground is found, and Cornish uses their connection to explore the way everyone trades in stereotype, believing whatever’s easy for them in order to justify their own behavior. Like the very best genre films, Cornish isn’t just telling you the story you see on surface here. There are bigger things on his mind, and he is gifted enough to let the subtext speak for itself while letting the text simply work as pure visceral experience.
I’ve read concerns that the film’s accents will render it impenetrable to a mainstream audience, but I don’t believe for a second. There is so much inherent attitude to the performances that even if you don’t understand every syllable, you understand exactly what’s being communicated. I didn’t have any trouble with either accents or slang, and I think any distributor who passes this one up simply because the kids don’t speak like Americans is a fool. A straight-up, no excuses fool. This is as commercial a genre film as anyone will make this year, indie or studio, and there is an audience out there that will eat it up. And anyone who talks about remaking it instead of releasing it? Double fool, and they deserve terrible things involving grizzly gears and their lower regions to happen to them. Lightning will not strike twice. This movie does not need to remade. Absolutely nothing will be gained from doing so.
Overall, the film is a collection of great choices that add up. His score by Basement Jaxx and Steven Price will make any John Carpenter fan giddy with joy, as will the cinematography by newcomer Thomas Townend, whose work evokes the wet-pavement slick of vintage Dean Cundey. Even so, this isn’t a case of nostalgia packaged as a movie. “Attack The Block” may be the sort of film where you can pull apart the DNA to find traces of “The Warriors” and “Gremlins” and “Over The Edge” and “The Thing,” but it has its own voice, and it never trades on easy references or simple nods. The design of the creatures is impressive, as is the execution of them, and when the stakes continue to escalate, Cornish makes you feel it. He wants it to matter. After all, if there’s no real danger, and if you don’t care about the people you’re watching, then there is no payoff. And “Attack The Block,” more than anything else it does well, delivers a payoff. It is one of the purest film pleasures I’ve encountered in a while, and the only real problem I have with it is that I want a new Joe Cornish movie tomorrow.
Pretty good problem to have, if you ask me.