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Attack the Block’ Serves Up John Boyega’s Film Debut

Force Awakens’ star plays an inner city gangbanger taking on outer space invaders

Above: Teens vs. aliens in "Attack the Block."

Companion Viewing

"If..." (1968)

"Sweet Sixteen" (2002)

"Shaun of the Dead" (2004)

"Harry Brown" (2010)

"Attack the Block" (screening Saturday at midnight at Landmark's Ken Cinema) is getting a second lease on theatrical life thanks to the fact that its teenage star John Boyega just catapulted to stardom last year with "Star Wars: The Force Awakens."

When "Attack the Block" opened in 2011, it came on the heels of a lot of buzz from movie geeks. The buzz started in its native England, and grew with screenings at SXSW and Comic-Con. When this British sci-fi action comedy opened in San Diego, it was with little fanfare so it slipped in and out of theaters barely causing a ripple.

The story is explained quite simply with the tagline for the film: Inner city versus outer space. The film starts with a young white woman being mugged by a mostly black gang of teenage youths led by Moses (played by a then-teenaged John Boyega). The crime is interrupted by an alien creature falling from the sky and landing smack dab in the middle of the troubled working class neighborhood. The teens, not caring where the thing is from, take a "not on our block" attitude and hunt the thing down. This only brings more aliens and more trouble.

Nick Frost makes a cameo as a pothead in "Attack the Block."

Screen Gems

Above: Nick Frost makes a cameo as a pothead in "Attack the Block."

The film was executive produced by Edgar Wright ("Shaun of the Dead," "Hot Fuzz," "Scott Pilgrim") and it's nice to see him, like Guillermo Del Toro, mentoring fresh new talent. In this case he helps British comedian-writer-director Joe Cornish (of "The Adam and Joe Show," and he and Wright are co-writing the "Tintin" movie for Spielberg) get his first feature film project.

The film is something like "The Goonies" with a bit of "Ghostbusters" and then the sensibility of a Mike Leigh kitchen sink drama and the savvy humor of Edgar Wright's "Shaun of the Dead." The film doesn't so much go for the hip, self-referential style of recent action comedies but rather stays close to home with its humor as it delivers laughs with a keen social awareness of life in England right now.

The film suggests that the punks terrorizing the neighborhood are doing so out of mere idleness and lack of direction because society gives them nothing to do, places no value on who they are and stereotypes them as hoodlums. This also makes them perfect for fighting aliens — they are highly territorial, useful in a tight spot, and unafraid of unleashing their wrath on anyone from outside the 'hood.

Part of what's fun and refreshing is that there is not much made of the aliens. We never get scientists explaining what they are or people wondering about how all this happened. Cornish just introduces the aliens and sets the kids after them. It's elegantly simple and delightful.

Plus the kids — non-professional actors as far as I know — all seem quite natural. They are pumped up on action movies and video games and just dying for an opportunity to be a hero or be noticed for something. They evolve from intimidating hoodlums in the open to sympathetic teens by the end.

John Boyega plays the teen gang leader Moses and he displays amazing screen presence and charisma, like a young Denzel Washington. No wonder J.J. Abrams cast him as Finn in "The Force Awakens." But all these kids are great and totally believable.

John Boyega and Jodie Whitaker in "Attack the Block."

Screen Gems

Above: John Boyega and Jodie Whitaker in "Attack the Block."

Although I mentioned the social underpinnings to the story, the film does play as just a riotous action comedy. The aliens are cool — black, dog-like creatures with glowing fangs — and just lethal enough to be a threat but not so all-powerful that they cannot be defeated. The kids use what they can to defend themselves — baseball bats, samurai swords, fireworks, and even super soaker water guns (but not loaded with water).

They take to the streets on bikes and skateboards but insist on facing the threat because "the block" is all they have.

The film pops with bright colors, moves quickly and with a genuine sense of energy and tension. Cornish delivers a clever script and then keeps the momentum going with his savvy direction. He gives us a film that's both over-the-top and rooted in the real world. That means no matter how ridiculous the plot may get we buy into it because the characters remain true and engaging.

As the crisis elevates, the kids curse the fact that they still have to walk the dog, deal with the local drug dealer and don't have enough cell phone minutes to text for help. Although, as one boy notes, this thing is "just too much madness to explain in one text."

It's also amusing to see that fear is not the kids' first response. They're too tough for that and when they finally accept the idea that they're dealing with aliens, their first thought is how to exploit that for financial gain in the media market. That is all completely believable even if you find the alien invasion far-fetched.

"Attack the Block" (rated R for creature violence, drug content and pervasive language) is an absolute delight — fresh, funny, clever and even an insightful window to contemporary South London. I am looking forward to more from Cornish as a writer-director.

Hopefully Boyega’s current popularity will bring new fans to this under-appreciated gem that has something to say about urban violence, community and taking responsibility for one’s actions.

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