I can’t remember who recommended this picture to me. It’s sort of a different take on the “hood movie.” You know, the old “two friends, one more crazy than the other, get mixed up in urban crime but then they try to go straight but at least one of them dies at the end” movies like BOYZ N THE HOOD and MENACE 2: SOCIETY.
I gotta warn you, it’s meandering and slow, sometimes amateurish, sometimes pretentious, and mostly humorless. But I still thought it was pretty fuckin good and I’ll explain why. (that’s what I do in these writings.)
First of all I gotta mention that this is the movie directing debut of Hype Williams, some famous music video director. What’s unusual about him doing this movie is that instead of getting some hired gun gig doing a sequel or a shitty eddie murphy comedy or something, like most of them do, this guy wrote his own script, an attempt at a personal statement, and did it independently and on a low budget.
Also unlike many music video directors who come up with shitty half assed movies like ALL ABOUT THE BENJAMINS, the look of this movie is absolutely stunning. Really, it’s one of the best looking movies I’ve seen in a while. I figured this Hype was obsessed with the visuals and not the storytelling (since that’s where he needs the most work), but it doesn’t sound like it on the commentary track. He credits the look to director of photography Malik Sayeed and some film processing thing called silver retention, which I believe Mr. Fincher used on SEVEN. And he complains that he cut out too much and it didn’t make sense and he didn’t put enough emotion into the movie. (which is true.)
Anyway whatever he did, this movie LOOKS fantastic. The quality of the photographicry and lighting is a step above what you get in most any movie. It just looks so vivid, like you’re looking at the world closely for the first time.
I think this movie should be seen in the tradition of movies made by musicians who save up some money and then write a movie about themselves or their lifestyle. Examples include the Prince pictures, TOUGHER THAN LEATHER, and etc. It probaly shouldn’t be compared to the Beatles pictures. Anyway if you see it in that light, it’s pretty spectactular.
Now, I’ve seen some of these low budget crime pictures starring rappers. I kind of liked LOVE AND A BULLET but that’s the only one I can think of that I actually sat through. I tried to watch RANDOM ACTS OF VIOLENCE from the same director, but I didn’t get far. BELLY is different because although it has some of the same flaws (over explanatory narration poorly performed by a non-actor, to name one), the feel of it is so strong, you know right from the first shot that you’re not only dealing with A REAL FUCKIN MOVIE, you’re dealing with something a little more. The whole thing has a heightened reality, where it can seem highly stylized and documentary style at the same time. The acting styles (when they work) are naturalistic non-actor shit, like you get in BLACK AND WHITE or SLAM. But at the same time the look is out of this world. After a surreal shootout at a dance club (with strobe light and glowing green eyes) they go back to DMX’s house, where the carpet and furniture are solid black and everything else is white. The whole house is like a giant painting. And then DMX plays GUMMO on his big screen tv and his buddies get all confused.
It made me wonder though, what if you bought some doritos or something, or you were wearing the wrong clothes. It would just look stupid in a black and white house. Or it would draw attention to itself. If you’re standing there having a conversation with somebody, and you’re both wearing all white, and you’re holding a sandwich, your friend is gonna be staring at the sandwich the whole conversation. Unless the sandwich is painted black or white.
There are a couple of gun battles and car chases that have that adrenaline pumping, oh shit this is really happening chaos that I liked so much when Mr. Pink was on the run in RESERVOIR DOGS. These don’t come off as thrilling action sequences, they come off as sudden explosions of violence. You don’t enjoy them.
And as soon as you think you’ve figured this picture out, DMX goes to Jamaica. The real Jamaica. The footage is great and there are some exotic characters there, straight out of a Luc Besson picture. There is a guy with a blond mowhawk with white feathers carefully attached. He gets shot though, too bad.
His Jamaican connection is a legendary drug lord named Ox. I’m not sure if the actor was really Jamaican but if not he is incredible. This guy is a classic character, very menacing and likable, you kind of want to hang out and watch soccer with him in his living room to find out what kind of crazy shit he’ll tell you. One thing though: you can’t understand half the shit he says. The accent and slang are impenetrable, like Lee Scratch Perry or somebody. A couple times DMX even says, “Say again?” You get the idea he’s pretending he understands him even when he doesn’t, which is probaly what I’d do too. Anyway I’ve seen about ten thousand fake ass “yeah mon” Jamaicans in movies, thank god this Hype Williams finally gave us a real one.
DMX is great too. He does a nice poem at the beginning and end, otherwise I couldn’t tell you anything about his music. But the guy has a real presence and seems like a natural actor. I mean he stole EXIT WOUNDS right out from under Steven Seagal, that tells you something. Well, it doesn’t tell you much. But Morris Chestnut couldn’t do it in UNDER SIEGE 2, and he’s a real actor.
By the way here’s a tangent about this rapper versus actor business. Samuel L. Jackson never said he didn’t want to act with rappers. He actually likes the rap singers. What he said was he didn’t want to accept roles in movies that were just vehicles for a rapper to act in, or any other celebrity non-actor who gets to star in a movie just because they’re famous. His view is that an actor has to work hard to get those roles and it’s not fair for some fuckin tennis star or tv chef to take those roles just because they can. He probaly wouldn’t’ve done CROCODILE HUNTER either.
I have heard people say they don’t watch movies with rappers in them, and that’s just retarded. First of all you got a couple rappers who are good actors, like Ice Cube and Will Smith (in ALI only). Second of all, how come it’s not okay for rappers to jump right into movies, but it’s okay for comedians? Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Tim Allen, Bill Murray, Michael Keaton, Steve Martin, Michael Meyers, Robin Williams, Adam Sandler, Kevin Spacey… nobody complains when these jokers make movies, but they started out standing on a stage telling jokes. Well, maybe people complain when they make movies, but not because they didn’t start out as actors.
But anyway back to the movie though. DMX is good. A guy called Nas is actually the main character, and he’s okay. The actual filmatistic language is easy to follow, it’s not that quick cut shit you expect from MTV guys. But Mr. Williams still needs to learn to tell a story. You don’t really get to know the characters very well, too much is explained with narration instead of shown, and the story doesn’t have enough focus or flow to get you very involved in what happens to these dudes.
BUT, this is a real interesting debut. Next time this guy directs a movie I’ll see it right away, instead of dicking around for four years without renting the dvd.
p.s. I have no fuckin clue why it’s called BELLY. My best guess is something about “belly of the beast” but I couldn’t tell you why.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.