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Review: ‘Attack the Block’

The Projector

1. "Attack the Block" is the movie "Super 8" desperately wanted to be. "Super 8" wanted to invoke the kids-banding-together-to-fight-off-bad-guys spirit of "The Goonies" but got itself so caught up in its own nostalgia that it forgot to be a real movie, instead devolving into something that was more pale mimicry than homage. I suspect I'm not the first person to make this comparison, but it's J.J. Abrams' dumb luck that just a couple months after his movie missed its opportunity, another, grittier, livelier film got it right. If you want the true spirit of "The Goonies," it's not a bunch of nerdy middle-aged filmmakers trying to recapture their youth: It's "Attack the Block."

2. The kids of "Super 8" are idealized and too precocious to exist; the kids of "Attack the Block" feel like real kids. They're messy, they're obnoxious, they're annoying, they're irresponsible and, in this particular case, they're criminal. They're teenage punks, really, and the first time we see them, they're robbing an innocent nurse at knifepoint. The scene is a surprisingly scary one, and throws down the gauntlet early: "Attack the Block" isn't afraid of making you dislike its main characters. They're faced with a far more formidable foe within minutes: For reasons the movie mercifully doesn't explain, a race of alien beings are crash-landing in their specific neighborhood. It's not clear why they're here, or where they came from. All that matters is they're mean and extremely angry. (Postscript: An associate informs me that they're following a female's scent. Makes sense. That'll happen.)

3. The desire to make aliens the villains in movies is outpacing filmmakers' ability to imagine them; we've had a death of cool-looking aliens over the last few years. (Apparently the Abrams/Reeves/"Cloverfield" crew can only think of one specific kind.) It is to "Attack the Block"'s credit that it invents a great one, some sort of massive gorilla-dog mix with teeth that glow, all the better to show off their ferociousness. We see lots of those teeth too, because they're out to murder our gaggle of teens, who had the misfortune of, shortly after robbing the nurse, killing one of the female aliens. They don't like that, and they smell the hormones on one of the kids. So, the war is on.

4. In a nice irony, I can't help but wonder if this movie would make more money if it had the title "Teenagers & Aliens." (Though it is up for debate whom the average American parent would cheer for in that clash.) That's what it comes down to, as the kids band together not just to battle the aliens, but also some of the scarier elements within their own housing project, including a nasty drug kingpin who keeps misunderstanding who the true bad guys are. The movie has an impressively light touch when it comes to the economic circumstances of the kids and the project's residents. Other than a few stray comments about the uselessness of the police and an amusing running joke about a rich kid who pops up just to score weed, "Attack the Block" is more interested in being a fun ride than any sort of statement about anything. Thankfully.

5. The movie still has a little bit too much fanboy in it for its own good; everybody loves Nick Frost, but his small role as a scared, wisecracking stoner is out of place here, serving more as a distraction to the story than welcome comedic relief. But it features a muscular, impressive debut performance by John Boyega as Moses, the leader of the gang who says little but terrifies everybody, even while keeping a human touch that the movie relies upon. (This is always a risky prediction when dealing with kid actors, but I think he could end up a serious star; combining menace with vulnerability is a rare find, regardless of your age.) The movie's ending is a little too pat, and I'm not sure the whole drug subplot isn't just a halfhearted attempt to win over the "Harold and Kumar" crowd, but "Attack the Block" is skilled, heartfelt entertainment done well. I bet some kid watching it will try to make a movie just like it, when he's all grown up.

Grade: B+