Lionsgate // 2001 // 81 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // February 3rd, 2003
A coming of rage story...
During a carjacking, the Eastside Red Riderz find a video camera. Fascinated by it, a young gang hopeful named Kris decides to create a document of his everyday life in and around his home, as well as his initiation into this violent band of "brothers." From this first person perspective we get to know the members of this group, the other young men that his world centers around: Alonzo is the ersatz leader, a slick drug hustler who teaches Kris the "how-tos" of cooking and selling crack. Travis goofs as a wannabe rapper who tries to turn every situation, no matter how violent or tragic, into something comical. But most intriguing to Kris is Cyril, a recently released ex-con whose one-track mind is bent on payback, loyalty, and murder. Together, they try to protect their turf, while addressing attempts and attacks by other rival organizations. But as the crimes, the threats, and the vendettas increase, tensions flare within the group and it seems impossible for the teenage Kris to avoid getting caught up in it all. He will do anything to fit in and belong, even if that means killing someone. All Kris can see is the fast money and the dangerous, exciting sense of respect he gets. And as he moves from hanger on to hoodlum, he will catch it all "live" as part of his Gang Tapes.
Since it first hit movie screens in 1999, The Blair Witch Project has been heralded as a breakthrough in independent filmmaking, a blueprint for anyone with some cash, a digital camera, and the vision to experiment with the medium. However, since its worldwide success, it's hard to point to another film that matched its unusual hypothesis or DIY spirit. That is, until Gang Tapes. Working from a premise (based firmly in reality) of following the life of an up and coming South Central gang member through a "his-eyes-only video diary" he creates with a stolen video camera, this gritty urban drama does what the fake-out tomfoolery of the Blair Witch failed to do: it creates a compelling thriller with realistic characterization from an almost exclusive first person perspective. We hardly see Kris, our teenage cameraman/guide through this thug life of red and blue, Bloods and Crips. Occasionally, he approaches a stationary camera to speak. Other times, we see him reflected in the mirror or a car window. But more times that not he is our eyes and ears, our voyeuristic tour guide into the world of drive-by shootings, blood brotherhood, territorial vendettas, non-stop parties, and illegal activity. The film does not shy away from the realities of ghetto life (graphic violence, language, sexuality, and drugs), but nothing here is exploitative. The filmmakers try to capture a cinema vérité style exploration of the hard knock life lived by those on the other side of society's concern. And they do so marvelously.
Credit director Adam Ripp for devising an ingenious and yet grounded way of creating suspense, drama, and excitement. By employing the device of a handheld camera, the audience immediately stands in the place of the character filming and is instantly swept up into the dramatic, violent scenarios, not knowing what will come next or how events will play out. The conceit is maintained nearly 100% of the time and there are also numerous photographic tricks employed (hidden edits, carefully planned pans and cuts) to shape the narrative while giving the movie a real "captured as it happened" quality. All this heightened reality, in return, magnifies the personalities of the character. We get to know them very well, not just by their curse word filled expressions of rage and disenchantment, but also by the little nuanced peripheral moments that the "seeing eye" camera captures. The mostly non-actor, unprofessional cast is to be given its "props" for finding a appropriate balance between fury and subtly, never moving into the realm of cliché or stereotype. Even though they are meant to represent certain aspects of life in these desperate streets of fire, they are always one step ahead of being archetypes. As Kris, Trivell is surprisingly effective, going from naïve innocent to cold-blooded killer gradually and honestly. But the real find here is Darontay McClendon as Cyril the "Serial Killer." A former gang member in real life, his performance burns with a rage born of poverty, incarceration (he served time in his youth for assault) and desperation. Far from being a token badass, he carries a world of personal pain and torment inside himself that he pours out in one continuous seven-minute monologue (without cuts) that is stunning. It is a powerhouse performance.
This is one of the best DVD presentations to be released by Lions Gate. Since Gang Tapes was filmed using high definition digital cameras (an actual director of photography was employed to guarantee a "continuity" in the footage shot), the image, presented direct from video, is clean and sharp and looks appropriately "homemade," which adds a whole lot to the overall presentation. There is some minimal artifacting in a couple of night scenes, but in general the full screen image is exceptional (especially considering the amount of natural light and unusual techniques used. Aurally, Gang Tapes uses its Dolby Digital stereo to the maximum, either highlighting the excellent rap and hip-hop soundtrack (one of the few times where the music in an urban drama actually improves the movie) or providing a small amount of sonic immersion. Again, technological limitations reduce the total sonic presentation, but it's still good nonetheless. Finally, we are treated to a true treasure trove of extras, starting with a dozen or so bonus musical tracks, accompanied by publicity and behind the scenes slide show images from the film. Then we have three separate trailers, some short deleted scenes, an "uncut" version of the improvised rap from the film, and interesting production notes. But by far the stars here are the behind the scenes material, starting with the commentary track (featuring the director and his producers) that provides many informative anecdotes, describes independent filmmaking tricks, and hints at near fatal run-ins with real life gang members. Combined with an equally telling making-of documentary (running over 30 minutes and featuring screen tests and production meetings), and you have a complete picture of the formation and assembly of this fine cinematic experiment. While it will not be everyone's idea of professional moviemaking, Gang Tapes is nonetheless a provocative, unconventional look at the dead end life of 'bangers on the inner city streets of modern America.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 81 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Commentary Track
* Deleted Scenes
* Music Videos
* Additional Audio Tracks
* Making-of Featurette