Thugs Is Heroes, Yeah?
by James Killough
“That was really good,” my friend Mike Poursh said the other night as the end credits were rolling after Attack The Block. “I enjoyed it. How come it isn’t more popular?”
“It’s in a foreign language,” I replied. Which was just me throwing an easy zinger in there because Block is in English, of sorts. Or rather, it’s in a heavy-duty teen slang “Sarf” London quasi-dialect, which isn’t properly speaking cockney because that comes from the East End of the city, which has it’s own particular cultural references you should trample on at your own peril. Regional linguistic quibbling aside, the dialogue is probably too difficult to follow for many Americans outside sophisticated urban environments. And that’s why it’s not playing in every cineplex around the country and raking it in as a sleeper hit.
That’s a shame because Mike is right: as far as summer creature features featuring teens on bikes who save the world against alien invasions go, Block kicks the shit out of Super 8, and does it with gusto, toking on weed, wielding baseball bats and samurai swords, and wearing hoodies. Block was made for $13 million, Super 8 for a reported $50 million, which doesn’t include print and advertising. I’d tack on a good $25 million more onto that fifty mill, but it doesn’t matter; Super 8 has already made a quarter billion worldwide. Block has only made $4.5 million, and I have yet to find a friend in London who has seen it.
That no one has seen it in the UK, either, isn’t surprising; the Brits are not big cinephiles. From my experience, it’s because going to the movies fucks with their drinking. They’d rather buy three pints of lager and a packet of crisps “round the local” and enjoy a jolly good chinwag with their mates than sit in a movie theater for an hour and a half, and come out too sober to have sex. At least the three pints relaxes them enough to do that, and gives them the beer goggles necessary to overlook the singular lack of pulchritude in every pub throughout the British Isles.
The Brits do love their tellie, though, and make some decent content from time to time. Again, I imagine this is because you can come home following a quick shag after the pub, and pass out in front of the TV without having to focus or have your buzz overwhelmed by an Orwellian screen. They also have a much stronger culture of inventive live theater and performance than we do; to a man, they love to throw on a cozzie, a bit of lippy and get up on stage.
The three great filmmaking and film-loving cultures are the US, India and France, which I suppose is why Super 8 has trumped Block at the box office to the point that Super 8 producer Spielberg is probably sitting around his Amblin office fanning himself with a shredded Cowboys & Aliens poster, saying “Block who?” as if pretending to not know about the Small Brit Flick That Delivers puts it in its rightful place, even though by rights it should be the other way around. (Actually, Spielberg isn’t doing that at all; he hired Block writer-director Joe Cornish to fiddle with the script for his upcoming Tintin.)
I know: the world is unfair. I’m convinced that even if Block had been made in French it would have done better at the box office worldwide. It is that much fun.
The film takes place over one Guy Fawkes Night in a block of public housing “council” flats near Oval Tube station in South London. For those not familiar with “Bonfire Night,” it is as loud as the Fourth of July, with an unhealthy dollop of British hooliganism thrown in for good measure. It isn’t a good night to be an alley cat, for instance; you are likely to get fireworks shoved up your rectum while you are being lynched by the sorts of “chav/scally” boys who are the unwitting heroes of Block. This is the first thing that makes the film so unusual, and sets it up for a sort of group character arc the filmmakers execute deftly, and milk to its fullest potential.
Guy Fawkes was a member of the Gunpowder Plot, a failed 9/11 that happened on November 5, 1605, in which Fawkes & Co tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament and King James I, Queen Elizabeth’s heir. Since then, 11/5 (or 5/11, if you are doing dates the sensible Rest of the World way) has been commemorated as an enforced public holiday.
This institutionalized mayhem is the perfect cover for a shower of hostile alien pods that descends on the eponymous Block. I can’t tell you why the invaders choose this particular location, but all isset up properly and properly explained; the script—story and dialogue combined—is, technically speaking, faultless. The screenplay is the sort of product that emerges from intensive scouring by a small committee of producers at the various British agencies responsible for making the film, who understand the exigencies of commercial filmmaking, and yet don’t err of the side of crap like their counterparts in Hollywood.
After mugging a resident of their council estate, the aforementioned “chav” teen thugs in hoodies discover that an alien—a small version of the generic Giger monster—has crash-landed in a park behind the Block. Using fireworks and baseball bats, they easily overwhelm the alien and kill it. But that action quickly unleashes the fury of the heavens upon them. Basically, they beat E.T. to death after hazing it with firecrackers, and now they have to pay the price.
Again, these kids are no cineaste suburban geeks making a cheap and charming short horror film. They are genuinely badass, funny, well drawn and well performed. They’re ghetto without being Precious. They do drugs, get up to no good and are unrepentant about it because the world is stacked against them anyway. What is unusual and refreshing is having the heroes of a relatively expensive indie Brit flick be a gang of black hoodlums (with one hilarious token white). As they must be in a film like this, the cultural and racial stereotypes are set up, and then turned on their ear as you quickly find yourself rooting for the kids you had thought were the antagonists.
As a directorial debut—Joe Cornish used to be a comedian on the BBC—this movie is remarkably assured. I have to believe that producer Edgar Wright, who made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, had something to do with that assuredness. Certainly the manic pace and editing is in line with his style. The score by Basement Jaxx also jumps the action up tremendously.
Unlike Super 8, most of the special effects seem to be done in-camera, or without the use of CGI, other than the usual explosion enhancements and subtler stuff like that, which most viewers don’t notice as being effects. This is something Mad Max creator George Miller might have cooked up back in the 80s. When reading reviews before seeing Block, I found the notion of this lo-tech approach off-putting, but kept thinking how our token Str8 and B-Movie horror champion Eric Baker would love this film, and I am probably right. It takes a while to buy into the reality of Block, with its offbeat humor and unsophisticated, flagrantly latex dummy feel, but once you’re in Cornish’s groove, the ride is worth it.
For a moment I thought maybe the reason Block didn’t do that well in the UK is because it came out during the riots, and the heroes are the same kind of disenfranchised rebels with zero cause who trashed London a month ago. But the release notes say it came out in May. So maybe you can just blame it on British apathy towards film, and wait for the American remake.