Lionsgate // 2003 // 91 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // July 16th, 2004
You're only worth what you bring in.
Biggs, a larger-than-life hood in Los Angeles, has his sights set on scheming the drug trade in the United States. With some of his men controlling customs offices in five major cities, and a seemingly endless supply of substances from fellow felons in Jamaica, all Biggs needs is a "mule" to make sure his plan is perfected. Enter Julius, a dancehall DJ with his own visions of fame and fortune. With a violent past in his home country, Julius hopes to make it in America. All he needs is a visa and a passport. Thanks to Biggs, and his island connection Rhino, our wannabe pop star provides the last link in the trafficking puzzle. But when prospects in the U.S. don't pan out quite the way he planned, Julius must go to Biggs for help...and his only option is to return to the life of a hit man that he thought he left behind in Jamaica.
As Biggs's enemies fall one by one, Julius finds his fortunes turning. He gains studio time and a chance to have his CD promoted. He meets and falls in love with a beautiful young college student. He even has the extra money to help his mom back home. But around every corner, the police and rival gangs threaten the surefire setup of Biggs and Julius. And when a disloyal element in the camp, scheming to take everyone down with it, begins a plot to overthrow the boss, Julius must uncover and eliminate it before he winds up in jail...or dead. From the hard streets of Kingston to the badass boulevards of Southern California, violence is never far away from Julius, AKA Rude Boy: The Jamaican Don.
There are two movies battling head to head in Rude Boy, one as powerful and real as a Chuck D lyric, the other as lame and ludicrous as a comeback tour for Sir Mix-a-Lot. When it focuses on the mean-streets existence of life in dirt-poor Jamaican slums, the narrative comes alive with raw freshness and genuine authenticity. But whenever the glorified gang goofs in the Los Angeles section flash their bling-bling and play like they're making a home movie version of a subgenre Scarface, the film falls apart just like Tony Montana's plans for world domination.
While it's hard to envision how a formulaic look at drugs and dominion can be anything other than silly and derivative, when we stick to the Rasta side of the scenario, Rude Boy really delivers. The destitute locations and attention to island detail (characters are allowed to speak in their own sparkling slang -- thankfully subtitled for our enjoyment -- jargon that substitutes tasty sayings like "blood clot" for the "F" word) introduce a whole new world into the same old crime lord saga. But unfortunately, all the American G-funk foolishness has to get in the way. Let's face it; any character who believes whispering all his lines makes him a sinister tough guy is sadly mistaken. And the movie's premise does provide a great deal of ballsy bait and switch. (We are told the music world will be part of this story, but those elements are quickly jettisoned. Jimmy Cliff, billed as a "special guest star," has a single three-minute scene.) One minute, we are seeing the rise of a death-dealing don and his budding empire. The next, we're getting a near-documentary look at how young people in the islands are driven to a life of crime.
Frankly, this entire movie is grossly overplotted. Each main character has multiple independent storylines running through his or her arc. Our lead, Julius, has his music career, his sick mother, his criminal past, and his new, not-who-she-seems-to-be girlfriend. Biggs has his drug empire, his production house, his family business problems, and the ongoing gang war to deal with. From henchmen with varying agendas to a patsy playing all sides against each other, there is too much double-crossing, vengeance-filled payback, and underhanded dealings to keep the narrative strands separate. Eventually, plot aspects plow into each other, leaving behind a dust cloud of indecipherable motives and meaningless machinations.
Rude Boy will test your tolerance for egomaniacal grandstanding, weird rituals of honor, and the livin' large clichés culled from a dozen years of rap music videos. The acting is uniformly acceptable, with newcomer Mark Danvers -- as our hero Julius -- presenting the kind of pretty boy charisma that other actors would simply kill for. With a winning smile and sense of sexy innocence, it's a safe bet that he will be a bigger star, breaking out of the limits of this low-budget film. Man-mountain Michael Taliferro is guilty of the aforementioned breathless broadness as the corpulent crime boss Biggs, and John "Ras Kidus" Cornelius makes an amiable antagonist as the wicked Rhino. Utilizing digital cameras to create a cinema vérité feel to his film, director Desmond Gumbs still stumbles a few times. His tone is totally out of control (one minute it's a Mafia movie, the next it's a sophisticated urban romance), and aside from an opening warehouse sequence where turncoats find themselves on the motorized end of Biggs's chainsaw, action is kept to a minimum. Violence is everywhere in this film, but it's usually not attached to any dramatic element. It's a nod to the expectations of the target audience for this movie, not something to stimulate the narrative.
Perhaps it's time to place the blame squarely on the shoulders to which it belongs. Thanks to Oliver Stone's sensationalistic screenplay and Brian DePalma's operatic direction, that story about a scrappy Cuban who takes over the drug trade from Frank and his fellow Miami misfits -- otherwise known as Scarface -- has become a cultural staple in the African American community. There are probably hundreds of PhDs in the making over why this is so, and conjecture as to its greatest hit significance is best left for those with insight and intelligence. You could argue that it's the blood-and-guts glory of a sensationalized struggle to the top, or a microcosm of life in the ghetto extended to the Cuban refugee crisis, but how two white-bread movie men managed to create the blueprint for a billion no-budget urban gangster sagas is still a shocker. You can see how Rude Boy wants to mimic the epic swagger and pseudo-authenticity inherent in DePalma and Stone's scenarios, and Julius does have a Tony Montana trajectory -- a quick rise and even more majestic fall -- to his storyline. But instead of being bold enough to completely consume and regurgitate the moxie and mannerisms of said film, Rude Boy wants to add its own spin. And as said before, when the focus is on Jamaica, the movie soars. When we trudge back into "gangstas galore" territory, the narrative has nothing but archetypes and awkward antics to toss at the screen. The Harder They Come proved that an island crime film can be a delight. But Rude Boy knows that, in order to satisfy its potential fan base, keeping it real means focusing less on the cultural differences between the United States and the Caribbean, and more on the fundamentals of faux flashy firepower fellas.
The use of a decidedly digital element makes Rude Boy that much more aesthetically pleasing. Gumbs does try for a Traffic-like washed-out look to his transfer, hoping to increase the atmosphere in his film with these faded outdoor images. The rest of the time, the colors are warm and vibrant, and the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen captures them excellently. Sonically, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is tight, filled with wonderful island beats, reggae swagger and hip-hop hardcore. While the tendency of the film is to use the same slow stutter beat over every non-song sequence in the score, the music is still one of the best parts of the aural presentation. And even though it says Lions Gate on the cover, this is an Artisan anti-extra atrocity all the way. We are only treated to a series of trailers and many of them are mediocre at best. The lack of additional context keeps this DVD package from rating higher consideration.
That's the same response one will have to Rude Boy. If it had merely stayed with its inside look into the ways of the gun, Kingston slum style, this halfway honorable attempt at authentic crime drama could have succeeded. But it's the typical trash, the cap-in-the-ass-popping pandering to the rap and black communities that keeps Rude Boy grounded and goofy, two things a crime thriller should never be. Rude Boy as a film and character is a true wannabe. It's not a surprise that neither "becomes" anything special.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, with some Jamaican dialogue)
Running Time: 91 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R