Skip The Watch, Queue The Block

By Mr. T

Last Friday saw the theatrical release of The Watch, a film in which Vince Vaughn, Jonah Hill, Ben Stiller and some hipster with an afro form a neighborhood watch group to combat aliens that invade the local Costco.  Seriously…that’s what it’s about.

Normally, Vaughn and Hill are good for a few laughs, even in movies where the plot and the rest of the cast can’t keep up (Vaughn in The Dilemma, Hill in Funny People, for example), but this film has “mailed in” written all over it. The trailers suggest half-invested rehashing of all the shtick that we’ve come to expect from the key players: Hill being self-deprecating and awkwardly putting his hands in people’s faces, Vaughn playing the man-child who refuses to act his age, and a whole lot of Ben Stiller not being funny.

Here is my advice to you: skip the theater, fire up Netflix and queue up Attack the Block, a 2011 indie film from Britain about… you guessed it, aliens invading a neighborhood.  “The Block” is a housing project in South London, and it’s patrolled by a thuggish gang of teens led by Moses, played by the terrific Jon Boyega. The boys both defend and terrorize their neighborhood, mugging and brutalizing outsiders and unsuspecting pedestrians while promoting a sense and unity and pride amongst the residents that make the block their home.

One of the former is Sam (Jodie Whitaker), a nurse living alone in the project while her boyfriend is on a Red Cross mission to Ghana. The film opens with Sam running afoul of Moses and his troops on her way home from work in a scene that makes you wonder how in the hell you are supposed to root for these kids as heroes. But when a meteor crashes into the center of the project, unleashing a pack of feral space wolves (yeah, that’s right,) Sam and Moses soon find themselves allies in a fight for survival. “There’s worse things out there to be scared of than us, tonight! Trust it!”  What follows is an 88-minute mash-up of black comedy/horror/action/sci-fi as Moses, Sam and Co. battle aliens, drug dealers, the police and one another in defense of the block they begrudgingly call home.

Writer/director Joe Cornish (known primarily on this side of the pond for penning the script for 2011’s animated Tin-Tin) makes his feature-length directorial debut, and doesn’t disappoint.  Cornish seamlessly blends the reality of life in the South London ghetto with the fantasy of a full-scale alien invasion.

Unquestionably, the story is character driven. Attack the Block examines human beings and their reaction to an incomprehensible situation. The aliens are secondary; they are the petri dish in which the human experiment plays out. There are inevitable bits of social commentary sprinkled throughout the film, like when Moses postulates on the aliens being sent by the government to kill black youths. “First they sent in drugs, then they sent guns, now they’re sending in monsters to kill us. We ain’t killing each other fast enough, so they decided to speed up the process.”

You can take or leave Cornish’s occasional quips about poverty and racism, as he does not make them a central part of the narrative; merely a footnote to be considered or ignored.  Cornish doesn’t make apologies for any of his characters; there are no third-act epiphanies or moral lessons about having to change their violent ways – Moses is a bad motherfucker, regardless of whether his foe is human or extraterrestrial.

The cast of Attack the Block consists of newcomers and relative unknowns.  Jon Boyega shines in his role as Moses, and when the madness begins, you will find yourself in his corner 100%. The comic relief is supplied mostly by Alex Esmail as Pest, the only white member of Moses’ gang and the cockney equivalent to Corey Feldmen’s Mouth in The Goonies.  By the midpoint of the film you’ll find yourself caring, whether you’re rooting for the crew to survive or hoping to see them get torn to pieces in the neon blue jaws of the aliens.

One word of warning – the cockney accents and rhyming slang are poured on like heavy syrup. If you had a hard time deciphering the dialogue in a film like Green Street Hooligans, then most of what’s being said in this movie will be a total fucking mystery. However, if you pay attention, you can start to pick up some of the oft-repeated phrases. If your auditory skills are less keen, or your patience less a virtue, the action of the film will lead you along and you’ll pick up enough conversation to get by.

By the end credits I can guarantee two things: you will feel like you spent the past 88 minutes wisely, and you will be looking for every opportunity to inject some of Moses’ slang into conversations with your friends. Trust. Allow it.

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