You can’t help watching ATTACK THE BLOCK (especially toward the end of the film) without thinking of the London Riots. Whether the riots will help the film’s box office is highly doubtful, but the film’s limited release couldn’t be more timely. But way before the riots, ATTACK THE BLOCK has generated continuous buzz since its premiere at South by Southwest as the indie film to see this year. The director, Joe Cornish, is mostly known to British audiences for his pop culture sketch show, THE ADAM AND JOE SHOW. He is also one of the screenwriters of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN: SECRETS OF THE UNICORN. Unfortunately, ATTACK THE BLOCK wasn’t playing in San Jose and due to my impatience to see what the big deal was on this film, I decided to drive the 1 hour to San Francisco to check it out yesterday afternoon. Despite my unreasonably high expectations somewhat dampening my overall feelings about the film, ATTACK THE BLOCK emerges as one of this year’s better action films. That is saying a lot considering the tiny budget this movie had to play with and compared to the obscene spectacles put out by the studios this summer.

ATTACK THE BLOCK has a simple premise. Little black aliens with fluorescent mouths descend upon a ghetto neighborhood in London where they are discovered by a gang of hoodlums (think of a gangbanger version of THE GOONIES). The gang seem to be the only ones who realize there is an alien invasion going on in their neighborhood (the block) and so they take on the alien threat in an attempt to get rid of them.

I prefer my films to be more narrative-driven than anything else, but I’m willing to set aside my preference if a film contains strong characters and/or a well-executed plot (i.e. THE RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES). ATTACK THE BLOCK obviously doesn’t concern itself with presenting us with an original plot. Instead, it focuses on giving us a balls-out action movie with very engaging characters. The main characters of this film are a ragtag bunch of hoodlums who are absolutely reprehensible human beings in the beginning of the movie. By the end of the film, however, the filmmakers do such a wonderful job in developing their characters and connecting them with the audience, that you will surprise yourself by how much you empathize with them.

The leader of the gang pack, Moses, is one particular character who undergoes the most dramatic character arc. In the beginning of the film, Moses is a hardened, cold criminal who confronts a young nurse who is walking home one night. Surrounding the woman with his gang, Moses pulls out a switchblade and points it at her, demanding that she hand over her belongings. At that point, I seriously doubted whether I would ever like Moses. His character displays zero compassion for anyone except for his fellow gang members. What’s more, he aspires to become just like the drug dealer that he works for. I figured the filmmaker would eventually make Moses repentant of his criminal ways, but I was afraid that the filmmaker would not successfully transition the character from a criminal to a hero in a plausible way that would make us accept why the character changes. However, the biggest strength of this movie is indeed Moses’ character arc. He doesn’t readily admit the error of his ways like I was afraid he would. The character undergoes a long gradual process where you sense him struggling between his former life and a brighter, virtuous one. For an action movie that’s populated by many characters all vying for screen time, that’s not easy.

The rest of the gang is a diverse bunch of kids who deliver believable, natural performances that reminded me a lot of the kids in THE GOONIES. Each kid has a distinct and memorable personality so you don’t feel like the characters are indistinguishable from one another. They’re a loud and crude bunch, but like Moses, they grow on you as the film progresses and you end up really caring for their survival.

I think one worry that many will have before seeing this is how much of the dialogue will be comprehensible to American ears. I had the same worry because I continue to watch TRAINSPOTTING with the subtitles on. I’ll admit the dialogue is very difficult to understand at first, but my ears became accustomed to the accent and I was able to pick up most of what was being said. All in all, don’t let the heavy accents dissuade you from seeing ATTACK THE BLOCK.

In terms of the film’s weaknesses, I went into ATTACK THE BLOCK expecting the same sort of hilarity that I saw in SHAUN OF THE DEAD (its co-produced by the director and production company of that film). Although the film certainly contains funny moments, its much more serious than I expected and the funny moments didn’t elicit the sort of laughs that I was hoping they would. Not surprisingly, the funniest moments in ATTACK THE BLOCK come from Nick Frost, who plays Simon Pegg’s companion in SHAUN OF THE DEAD and the more recent PAUL. Another character that I found to be hilarious is the drug dealer/gangster Hi-Hatz. However, both of these characters are in supporting roles whereas the main characters end up being flat for most of the comedic moments.

At the same time, ATTACK THE BLOCK contains some pretty fun action moments. The climax scene in particular is a rousing moment that gets built up during the preceding scenes. This is a low-budget movie so don’t be expecting Michael Bay-level pyrotechnics, but the filmmakers still manage to generate tension and suspense to keep you entertained. I think what would have made the action better would have been if the filmmakers had created more interesting alien monsters. I don’t think that black furry creatures that look like the Muppets are that scary. You would also think that with the size of the alien invasion attacking the ghetto, people would be losing their minds and running around all over the place. Instead, it seems like the main characters are the only ones who are aware that aliens are present.

ATTACK THE BLOCK is not quite the indie surprise that DISTRICT 9 was, but it’s a fun ride that is best suited for a Blu-ray rental or maybe a matinee.