Money can make people do funny things.
People whose name is not Mike Epps, that is.
Nearly 30 years ago, at the height of the blaxploitation boom, Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby teamed up for a classic buddies-in-trouble comedy called Uptown Saturday Night. A decade later, Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy would forever redefine the buddy film in Walter Hill's 48 HRS.
If you've seen those two movies, you've seen this one. Only better.
Facts of the Case
If one has to live the rough-and-tumble life of a skip tracer, one could do worse than to bulldog felons amid the gloss, glamour and g-strings of Miami Beach. That's the yin-yang lot of Bucum Jackson (Ice Cube, Three Kings, Ghosts of Mars), a scrappy guy who collects expensive tropical fish and dreams of owning his own private investigations agency someday. (I suggest that if he'd lay off dropping $600 on a single bad oscar, he might realize that dream sooner.) His co-worker/occasional girlfriend Pam (Valarie Rae Miller, Original Cindy from TV's Dark Angel) would gladly join Bucum in his new life if he ever got his act together. Instead, Bucum keeps bringing in the fleeing felons for his and Pam's bail-bondsman boss Martinez (Anthony Giaimo, Wild Things, Deuces Wild), adding to his aquarium menagerie, and dreaming his big dreams.
Bucum's new assignment has that old familiar feel to it: the fugitive ("rabbit" in bounty hunter parlance) is small-potatoes scamster Reggie Wright (Mike Epps, Ice Cube's co-star in Next Friday and the upcoming Friday After Next), whom Bucum has hauled off to the courthouse at least three times and probably more. In the process of Reggie again escaping and Bucum again pursuing, the two men stumble upon a murderous jewel heist perpetrated by a pair of intense thieves (Carmen Chaplin, granddaughter of the Little Tramp himself, and Spike Lee repertory regular Roger Guenveur Smith). The hapless Reggie manages to lose his wallet in the back of the robbers' van, which proves problematic for two reasons: the crooks now know the name and address of the sole witness to their vicious crime, and—unbeknownst to the baddies—the wallet contains a winning lottery ticket worth $60 million, purchased by Reggie immediately before Bucum first caught up with him.
The two customary adversaries now find themselves unlikely allies in tracking down the jewel thieves, who happen to be in the employ of a nasty bowl of Scotch broth named Williamson (Tommy Flanagan, Face/Off, Gladiator), a man with the most incomprehensible accent since Shrek. (Has anyone else noticed that since the success of Beverly Hills Cop and Die Hard over a decade ago, the villains in practically every action flick are these slickly dressed, heavily accented Eurotrash types? Can't we Americans grow our own bad guys any more? And why the devil do those folks at the State Department who issue visas keep letting these wackos in?) Reggie wants his lottery ticket back so he and main squeeze Gina (Eva Mendes, Training Day, Exit Wounds) can collect their megamillions in prize cash. Bucum wants to bring the criminals to justice to gain publicity for his solo practice. Williamson and company want to safely deliver the $20 million in diamonds they've hijacked to a potential buyer.
Of course, all these people can't have what they want. Because, in the end, it's all about the Benjamins, baby. And if I have to explain the term "Benjamins" to you, you are not the audience for this movie.
Noted thespian Samuel L. Jackson launched a tirade recently about the instant credibility given pop stars—especially rap and hip-hop artists—who decide to try their hand at acting. While I agree with Mr. Jackson that most rappers and singers make lousy actors (Mariah Carey, anyone? Busta Rhymes? Britney Spears?), I'd hope he'd accept Ice Cube as an exception to this generality. (Ice-T, currently contributing effective support to the series Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, is another.)
The Cubeman can act, as he's proved with a decade of solid work in films beginning with 1991's Boyz N the Hood. He's also shown himself a skilled producer (his company CubeVision produced the Friday comedies as well as All About the Benjamins), decent writer (Ice Cube co-wrote each of the just-mentioned films), and even a reasonably capable director (The Players Club). Cube also warrants kudos for affording such first-time feature directors as F. Gary Gray (who went on from Friday to helm Set It Off and The Negotiator), Steve Carr (who followed Next Friday with the Eddie Murphy hit Dr. Doolittle 2), and All About the Benjamins headman Kevin Bray the opportunity to ply their trade on the big screen.
Ice Cube is the main reason anyone would see All About the Benjamins. Is he enough? Well…not by himself. Cube is just fine in this movie, but even his imposing screen presence can't entirely overcome the derivative script with which he's saddled himself and his fellow actors. He's also not sufficient to counterbalance the shrill and grating Mike Epps, who, though he finds moments here in which to be funny, is not as funny as he—or, apparently, Ice Cube—thinks he is. Epps is another of the current generation of comics (see Lawrence, Martin) who believe that "volume," "frenzy," and "profanity" are all synonymous with "humor." The man clearly has comedic skills—among them clever improvisational ability and excellent timing—but he needs a firm hand to reign him in and a strong screenplay to guide him. Unfortunately, he has neither here. Some effort is made to humanize Epps's character and make him seem less of a cartoon—he has a loving relationship with a steady girlfriend, he helps two elderly ladies pilfer from a convenience store some petty items they can't afford because they haven't received their Social Security checks (including a box of condoms, which one of the geriatric grifters says is "for when I need to get my freak on," a visual picture I could live without, thank you very much)—but it doesn't help enough.
Tyro director Bray likewise has obvious talent (he's directed music videos for the likes of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and N*SYNC). It's equally obvious he was a little lost directing his first feature. Bray wears out every stylistic gimmick in his arsenal: slo-mo, fast-mo, quick cuts, freeze-frame. And that's before the opening credits. By the time we've seen these tricks ad nauseum for an hour and a half, trust me, Kevin—we get it already. Bray also has a lesson to learn (one not uncommon among filmmakers who graduate from music videos to features) about sustaining a narrative over the entire length of a movie. There were far too many places in All About the Benjamins where I found myself wondering how some of the many cavernous holes in the plot would be bridged, only to find that they never were, really. Several scenes, such as the one in which Bucum and Reggie venture to Williamson's yacht dealership to identify him (they know his name but not his face) are so poorly thought-out that they nearly derail the story entirely. Bray's pacing is a definite problem too, regardless of all his flash and dash—for a film that clocks in at a relatively slim 98 minutes, it sure felt like it went on much longer.
And was there a reason why all the actors couldn't agree on the pronunciation of "Bucum"? Some of the characters, including Ice Cube, say it "buck-em," others pronounce it "book-em" like they're doing a Jack Lord impression. How hard would it have been for the director to tell the cast, "We're all going to say it this way," and then enforce the rule?
But the movie's not a total loss. When it's not working overtime to impress the audience with cinematic legerdemain, All About the Benjamins is a great-looking picture that uses its South Florida locations to fullest advantage. The two leads—despite Epps's tendency to overact—share an engaging chemistry underpinned, no doubt, by their real-life friendship and prior working relationship. And Eva Mendes steals every scene in which she appears as Reggie's girlfriend Gina; she possesses a star quality that electrifies the screen whenever she appears. Mendes also redeems a character with immense potential for stereotype and imbues her with intelligence and life.
New Line Home Entertainment showers All About the Benjamins with a DVD presentation that makes the film worthy of attention. The transfer to digital (it's anamorphic, in what appears to be a 2.35:1 ratio) is eye-popping. The bright color palette of Miami, bursting with reds and yellows, simply glows, without any evidence of artifacting or source print damage. Contrast is clean, with smooth rich shadows and sharp whites. There's a fair amount of edge enhancement employed, but the halos are relatively unobtrusive.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is excellent, offering thunderous bass response—as might be expected with a score heavy on hip-hop singles. New Line also provides English DTS and 2.0 stereo audio for your listening enjoyment, but no alternate language track. Perhaps the production staff felt the appeal of this film was limited to an English-speaking audience, but I have to question their logic. The film is set in Miami, a city with a strong bicultural flavor, contains a major character who is Latina, and is built around a musical style with serious crossover appeal into the Hispanic market. Seems to me New Line is forfeiting some potential sales by not including either Spanish-language audio or subtitles.
The studio deserves credit, though, for filling out this disc with plenty of extras. First, and quite possibly least, director Kevin Bray and co-producer Matt Alvarez team up for a detailed audio commentary. It's painfully apparent Bray has never done this sort of thing before (this is, after all, his first feature film), because his comments tend toward the tentative and dry and stick rigidly to what's going on onscreen. Alvarez is nominally more interesting to listen to, but not by much. Both men continually struggle to recall the actors who play the minor roles, many of whom were local Miami talent—I lost count of how many times either Bray or Alvarez said, "There's…oh, I can't remember his/her name." Boy, are these actors going to relish knowing the impression their work made on the producer and director. (Would it have been too much to have a cast list handy to which these guys could refer?) There's also a considerable amount of annoying by-play with the studio production staff, as in, "Hey, is the Trina video going to be on the DVD?" (Rule of thumb, gentlemen: if you don't know whether a particular item will be included on the disc, don't mention it on the disc.) Not the best commentary you'll hear, but it's there for you.
A series of featurettes measure up far better. The first, entitled Shot Caller: From Videos to Features, is a 14-minute series of interview clips, mostly with filmmakers who have worked on movies from Ice Cube's production company, and centers around making the transition from music videos to full-length films. Participants include Ice Cube, directors Kevin Bray (All About the Benjamins), Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Money Talks), and Steve Carr (Next Friday, Dr. Doolittle 2), producer Matt Alvarez, cinematographer Eric Engler, and editor Dustin Robertson. This is an intriguing short in view of the huge influx of feature filmmakers who continue to graduate up from the MTV set, and all parties involved seem eager (Ratner and Carr are notably animated) to discuss why the video medium makes an excellent forum in which to learn while you earn.
The three remaining documentaries are specific to All About the Benjamins, and were all assembled from the same set of interviews with the film's cast and crew. All three are nicely produced and informative. One glaring error they share is that the snippets featuring Kevin Bray are reversed: he's wearing a baseball cap that reads "Kevin" across the crown, and the text is backward. (Bray wears the same cap in the Shot Caller short, which was culled from a different set of interviews, and his cap reads normally there.)
Strictly Business: Making the Benjamins is a fairly standard 12-minute promotional featurette compiled of comments from the cast and crew, interspersed with film clips and behind-the-scenes footage. Most of the key actors appear, along with the main production folks. In a humorous twist, subtitles pop up each time actor Tommy Flanagan speaks, to aid viewers unable to decipher his thick Scottish brogue. (Unfortunately, Flanagan is not captioned in the film itself, though he should have been.)
Miami Nice: Production Design focuses on production designer J. Mark Harrington and set decorator Barbara Peterson as they review their task of incorporating the unique local color of Miami into the overall look of the film, including the set designs and costumes. This interesting short runs 8-1/2 minutes and features plenty of location footage.
All About the Stunts is a technically oriented featurette with the stunt coordinators and special effects people explaining how all of the action sequences were put together. There are some fascinating remarks by the helicopter pilot about how several of the filming flights done to capture aerial footage for this movie would not be authorized today in the post-9-11-2001 era. We're also shown quite a bit of the stunt work done by Ice Cube's and Epps's doubles.
One deleted scene is included, and it's a pretty funny one. An actor named Rickey Smiley plays a character called "Snitch Mitch," a street informant used by Bucum Jackson, who does a two-minute riff on Miami's South Beach heckling passersby. I can see why the scene was cut from the movie—it's a character moment for a character who's not in any other scene, and it doesn't advance the plot—but it's an enjoyable throw-in. And it's considerably funnier than the two-minute outtake reel that's also included here.
The remaining add-ons offer something for everyone. For music lovers, there's a video by the singer Trina (but, strangely, not for Sean "Puffy" Combs's gigahit "It's All About the Benjamins"). For completists, both the teaser trailer and full theatrical trailer are included, in anamorphic transfers with Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. For the librarians among us, a press kit feature serves up a text-based plot summary and detailed biographical sketches (but not filmographies as such) of most of the cast and 11 members of the production team. For the obsessive-compulsive, there's an easily located Easter egg (it's the New Line logo on the main menu) that reveals four screenfuls of DVD credits.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In the opening sequence, Bucum forays into the Everglades to apprehend a trailer-trash fugitive named Lil' J (a sneeze-and-you'll-miss-him cameo by Anthony Michael Hall). Following an exchange of gunfire, Bucum subdues Lil' J by applying an electric stun gun to the redneck's nether regions.
Now be honest: after his four consecutive John Hughes flicks in the mid-1980s, who among us wouldn't have leapt at the chance to zap Anthony Michael Hall at Conjunction Junction with 100,000 volts?
Talk about vicarious wish fulfillment.
If you enjoy chases, shootouts, and Mike Epps's brand of comedy (or, to use another frame of reference, if you can't wait for Michael Bay's sequel to Bad Boys), All About the Benjamins just might be your flavor. At the very worst, it's a reasonably entertaining, if clumsily scripted and directed, action flick that will mostly hold your attention while you consume popcorn and a beverage. Cube is good. And the fine supplemental package by New Line will give you some other pleasing diversions for your investment.
The Court sends Kevin Bray back to film school for another round of plotting and pacing courses. Tommy Flanagan's dialogue coach is sentenced to hard time for not making his client anywhere close to listener-friendly. The rest of the cast and crew are free to go. Everyone please deposit your Benjamins at the Judge's chambers as you depart…for inspection by the bailiff, of course.
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