Lionsgate // 1998 // 95 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Franck Tabouring (Retired) // August 29th, 2008
"We born to fucking die, man. In the meantime, get money." -- DMX
Musicians trying to kick off a big-screen acting career sometimes succeed, but in the case of Belly, they sure don't.
In this urban drama directed by Hype Williams, rappers DMX and Nas star as Tommy and Sincere, two big-time gangsters who spend their nights robbing places to bump up their wealth and maintain their power in the streets. But when it becomes clear that they both want different things out of life, the two friends see their friendship and loyalty challenged for the first time. While Sincere prefers to spend more time with his wife and baby, Tommy considers selling a dangerous new drug that has just hit the market. Letting his enthusiasm get ahead of himself, Tommy penetrates a risky territory without knowing what to expect, which eventually thrusts him into a whole lot of life-threatening trouble. With the new millennium approaching fast, Tommy's only hope out of the mess he got himself into is Sincere. Alas, the latter is not sure whether he's willing to risk his own life to save his lifelong buddy.
If Belly is lacking one thing, it's a coherent script. Although I did my best to sum up the central story in the facts of the case above, the film is a whole lot more chaotic and inconsistent than you may expect. The main plot is not so much about the breakdown of a strong friendship, but rather about two gangsters looking for redemption. You see, Sincere is the intellectual of the two, who spots the danger early enough and realizes his extravagant lifestyle is only harming the people he loves. Tommy is the complete opposite, always engaging in risky business to accumulate even more moolah and power than he already has. At one stage in the movie, both men try to find a way to get rid of their troubles and start over, but unfortunately, it takes them forever to get there.
All of this may sound incredibly emotional and suspenseful at first, but it's really not. The main story line behind the film is simply not captivating enough, offering viewers nothing but incredibly monotonous dialogue and a slow-paced plot that clearly lacks interesting intrigue. To tell the truth, I already had enough of it after the first 15 minutes. Another thing that really bugged me during the film is Williams' insistence on introducing a horde of new characters and subplots that no one cares about eventually. New names and faces pop up and disappear for no reason whatsoever, which only tears apart the central story and ruins the film's every chance to be consistent or credible. At times I wondered if Williams introduced all these characters just to stretch his flick and get it past the 90-minute mark.
For a crime drama, Belly boasts only a few action scenes, but even though they're a welcome change of pace, most of them fail to impress or provoke any suspense. A couple of shootouts and one or two short car chases really don't do the trick here. In between, the film reaches back to a general narration by Sincere, who basically introduces all the characters and lets viewers in on some details about the development of the main story line. I generally don't have anything against narrations, but this one just kept annoying me right until the end of the movie. Having an actor comment on a story via voiceover a couple of times during a movie is fine, but in this case, the narration literally dominates the plot, kicking in every time the actors on the screen take a breath from all their cursing. It couldn't be more annoying.
For a flick released in 1998, Belly boasts a solid cinematography, although all the strong colors and weird lighting end up being more annoying than they tend to impress. It's pretty clear from the beginning that Hype Williams has had plenty of experience as a music video director, because that's exactly what this film looks like: a 95-minute rap video ready to air on MTV. Neither Williams' direction nor David Leonard's quick editing manage to impress.
Let's move on to the acting. Apart from only a few exceptions, musicians usually fail at launching an acting career, just as much as actors mostly fail at launching a career in the music industry. Although DMX starred in several big-screen projects after this flick, his performance here as rough Tommy Bundy is forgettable. Nas tries his best to depict the film's more sensitive character in his role as Sincere, but I just had the hardest time buying his story. Also starring are Tarak Hicks, Tionne Watkins, and Method Man, who try their best to come across as authentic but eventually fail to do so. Sad to say, even the performances by these popular musicians go unnoticed.
As far as special features are concerned, the disc includes a lame deleted scene, a couple of trailers, and a music video. Besides a weird featurette during which random people comment on random topics (don't ask me why they decided to include this), the bonus material also features a commentary by director Hype Williams. I have to confess I only listened to about 30 minutes of it because I couldn't stand watching the entire film again, but Williams talks about how the script came together and how and why he chose to shoot the film he did. It's probably a fair enough commentary if you're among those who love the film.
Although I found it incredibly hard to sit through the movie without engaging in other, more exciting activities, I have to admit, in terms of video and sound quality, the Blu-ray release of Belly really delivers. The 1.78:1 non-anamorphic transfer is sharp and very clean throughout, providing plenty of images with strong colors that really stand out. The audio transfer is just as excellent, creating a solid balance between the film's narration, dialogue, soundtrack, and sound effects. It's sad that this DVD's only positive aspect is the technical aspect, but it's definitely better than nothing.
Belly is not the kind of crime drama that easily captures your attention and tells an intriguing story. On the contrary, the film ends up being more annoying and boring than exciting and innovative. It's just a big mess. Not even the title is explained or referred to in the movie. I'm sure you can interpret it as a metaphor of some kind, but honestly, who cares anyway?
Review content copyright © 2008 Franck Tabouring; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreem)
* DTS HD 6.1 Master Lossless Audio (English)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary
* Deleted Scenes
* Music Video
* Spoken World Featurette