The music business can be murder
Erik works for Hip House Records, its owner Bobby Starr and his PR person Cheryl as a street sniper, an urban advertising guerilla specializing in plastering promotional posters all over the city. He is obsessed with Prolifik, Starr's about to be huge rap artist. One night, while trying to get his friend Malik some free studio time, he stumbles upon the lifeless corpses of two dead bodyguards. Before he knows it, Starr is accusing him of stealing the master tapes to Prolifik's debut album and playing some part in said musician's kidnapping and death. When Erik then finds his buddy dead, he runs to Cheryl for help. But when she too turns up missing, it's up to him to work the streets that he knows so well to try and find out who is behind these awful crimes. Is it Starr? The mafia boss who secretly funds the label? The old gang that used to run with Prolifik? Or maybe it's been Prolifik himself, all along. Erik must put himself and his family at risk to solve the mystery and get payback against the guilty parties who turned his mischievously exciting life as one of the many street Snipes of Philadelphia into a struggle just to stay alive.
Even though it has a great many potentially implosive elements stacked against its success, Snipes is actually a very good, very intense action thriller. It tells a compact, logical story that pays off with multiple twists and turns. It presents performances of subtly and power. And there are several sequences of action and suspense that will work any average audience member right to the edge of their seat. Still, the possibilities for faltering were obvious from the cover art. Nelly, the "Hot in Here" rap sensation, is not known as a guaranteed thespian presence, but his gruff growl of a voice perfectly suits the street thug turned hip-hop star Clarence, AKA Prolifik. Dean Winters too skirts disaster in a borderline offensive portrayal of an exploitative white music mogul more than happy to hurl racial and cultural epithets at his minority employees for the sake of a power fix. Guns are oafishly brandished like toy extensions of the actor's arm to stay true to the tired "violence fixes everything" mindset of the screenplay. And the dialogue occasionally degenerates into fashionable but indecipherable street jargon. But Snipes (the title comes from slang for record company promotional workers, known as "snipers") somehow avoids these pitfalls to work as an effective insider look at the urban music industry and as a sly mystery who/why done it. Even if the major plot twist seems televised from the opening moments of the movie, there is still enough cinematic skill involved here (and additional plot permutations) to keep you re-guessing your assumptions until the credits roll.
A lot of the movies success stems from the talent of filmmaker Rich Murray. This first time director (he has extensive credits in second unit work) is a confessed borrower, using scenes and styles from numerous other films to lend authenticity and heft to his work. But the cribbing is not so obvious as to dull his personal vision for the film. Growing up in and around the neighborhoods of Philadelphia featured as backdrops to the action, there is a wonderful scenic artistry to the motion picture landscape. True, there may be one too many darkened, wet city streets to overplay the noir notions, but overall, Murray manufactures a menacing urban environment. He also desaturates the color palette, removing many of the reds and blues in favor of browns and yellows, again accenting the gritty feel of a metropolitan locale (as well as emphasizing the blood when it flows). He also knows how to exploit shot combinations and camera angles to create suspense and dread. The entire tape rescue/plot twist revelation scene is one long exhausting exercise in extended tension. At any moment our hero, young Erik, could get caught amongst a gang of desperate, potentially murderous killers. Murray paces the sequence perfectly and shows a real gift in never rushing the reveal. With the always welcome combination of good scripting and exceptional direction, Snipes works where so many other films of its sort fail miserably.
Columbia TriStar is also to be commended for giving Snipes a first class DVD treatment. Unfortunately, too many extras can and do spoil the transfer. Snipes has an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen presentation that suffers from compression grain. Since it happens so consistently, one could just pretend that it's part of the proposed "look" of the film, but when viewed in light of the overabundance of extra features, it's obvious that getting all this information onto a single digital disc caused print issues. Still, for what is on the screen, Snipes looks fine. On the aural side, while the Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 Surround does wonders with the many rap and hip-hop songs in the film, as per usual with any urban crime drama with a lot of music, there is not much else that showcases the channels. But Columbia really excels in the extras department. We get two commentary tracks, one by director Murray and editor Seth Anderson. Theirs is a blow-by-blow, shot-by-shot account of the trials and tribulations of making the film. While entertaining, it tends to drag in its detail. More enjoyable is the cast commentary (sans superstar Nelly). These actors genuinely like each other, and play off one another well. They are more anecdotal and response-oriented in their take on the movie, but it's this off-the-cuff quality that balances out the film school frankness of the other commentary. Add to the bonus bag a set of interviews, a behind-the-scenes look at the premiere, a music video, a collection of deleted scenes, a collection of outtakes, trailers and DVD-ROM accessible material, and you have a veritable cornucopia of contextual material that puts the performances and creation of Snipes into proper perspective. It rises head and shoulders above most other crap and slip-slop movies about the black music business to offer a chilling, thrilling urban mystery.
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