SLEIGHT is a 2016 film from director J.D. Dillard, who later did that fun woman-trapped-on-an-island-with-a-monster movie SWEETHEART. It’s produced by Blumhouse Tilt and the prestigious WWE Studios, who I still contend should only make movies starring wrestlers, but I forgive them in this case. The Undertaker would’ve been weird in this part.
Instead, Jacob Latimore (DETROIT) plays Bo, a young man living in L.A. He’s some kind of budding engineering genius and he got a great scholarship, but he had to ditch out on it because his parents died and he was the only one left to take care of his kid sister Tina (Storm Reid, THE INVISIBLE MAN). He has a cool neighbor, Georgi (Sasheer Zamata, formerly of Saturday Night Live), who looks after Tina for him sometimes, but otherwise he’s on his own.
Like SWEETHEART, it trusts us to have the patience to watch what he does for a while instead of giving us all the information up front. We see that he works as a street magician – a really good one. He does David Blaine style card tricks that blow the minds of the various young people he approaches on Hollywood streets. And he has a few weirder tricks where he seems to make objects move – like, causing someone’s ring to float and spin above his hand, moving his other hand around it to show that there are no strings involved. He does that one for Holly (Seychelle Gabriel, THE LAST AIRBENDER, BLOOD FEST) who is clearly into him, and maybe would be giving him the same look if the trick wasn’t so astounding. He gets her number and starts having awkward dates with her.
Some of that awkwardness is his social skills, but some comes from conflicts with his pay-the-bills job. He’s a drug dealer. Yeah, it sounds bad, but it’s kinda harmless, mostly selling ecstasy to hipsters older than him who are having parties and don’t seem bad off. His supplier Angelo (Dulé Hill, EDMOND) seems nice. Except we know it won’t stay that way. When Angelo hears that Bo has a first date he insists on giving him money to spend, then calls him during the date telling him to come over. Abusive manipulator stuff. He hands him a gun and makes him come with him to threaten a guy. Well, shit. This is not good.
Hill, who I think I’ve only seen playing nerds, delivers on the against-type stunt casting. There’s a good crime movie feel here – I sort of got a kick out of how much fun Angelo has terrorizing new-in-town coke dealers trying to undercut him, treating them like Jules Winfield treats the “say what again” guys. But of course I identified with Bo, who could never pass for a guy who wants to be there, or wants to be holding a gun. He’s in way over his head, and it sucks.
Okay, but also there’s this other thing going on. He goes home and looks in the bathroom mirror and uses q-tips to disinfect a wound in his arm. Not a wound – what the hell is that? Some kind of home made implant jammed into the muscle. He hooks it up to a battery.
I love that they just throw that on you casually and don’t really go into it. Yeah, as you can see, some of that street magic is not sleight of hand, it’s a DIY cyborg thing he invented and self-surgeried into his arm. No big deal. Don’t worry about it.
Admittedly I misunderstood a little. He does alot of taking objects from people, I was thinking he could do some kind of warping or some shit. No, that stuff is just pickpocketing. Any Magneto type shit, like floating the ring or moving a chair, that’s the implant. So we have this kind of FRESH type scenario – a young man who has been working for vicious drug dealers, wants out, and has to outsmart and outmaneuver them to save himself and his loved ones – mixed with a little dash of sci-fi. I like that.
There’s lots of tension. I wasn’t expecting how gruesome it gets in a particular turning point scene. But it’s mostly character based. I felt such dread when he was forced to betray one of his regular clients, a club owner played by the comedian Cameron Esposito. It could play her as some dumb mark and then it wouldn’t matter, but it seems like she’s cool and she likes him and he feels like shit stealing from her, but he doesn’t know what else to do to save his ass.
There’s even a hint of that when he’s up against Angelo’s thugs, like Packy (Michael Villar, “Southern Trapper [uncredited],” THE REVENANT), who has kind of a White Boy Bob, big-jolly-kinda-dumb-guy-who-is-also-dangerous vibe. Those guys deserve it, but they used to treat him kind of like a little brother, or at least a friend’s little brother. They had some moments together. So it’s kind of a betrayal.
I had just watched this one when C.J. Holden mentioned it in the comments for FAST COLOR, and I agree with that comparison. It’s another simple, well-told tale that’s sort of about a super power, but isn’t comic-booky at all, and has a low budget that prevents any temptation to fall back on spectacle. I like stuff like that, and this is a good one.
I’ve heard a few interviews with Dillard, and he seems like an interesting guy. He was working as a receptionist at Bad Robot while he was preparing this and he didn’t even tell them he was a filmmaker because he didn’t want them to think he was just using them for connections! They ended up being supportive, and he got to play a Stormtrooper in RISE OF SKYWALKER. Now, on the strength of SLEIGHT and SWEETHEART and probly his pitching skills, he’s attached to a secret Star Wars project which, if he makes it through the gauntlet, will make him the first black director of a Star Wars feature film. Nothing is known about it except that it’s written by Matt Owens, a writer from Luke Cage and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Some sources, including IMDb, claim that it takes place on “the hidden Sith planet of Exegol,” but I’m almost positive that comes from someone misinterpreting Borys Kit getting cute in his Hollywood Reporter story by writing, “Plot, character and setting details are unknown and are being kept in the murky underworld of Exegol.”)
Dillard has also been attached to a remake of the remake of THE FLY and a sequel to THE ROCKETEER. So there are many directions (of intellectual property) this guy may or may not go. He also has some kind of Korean War movie in pre-production. I’d be down for him continuing to make small movies like this, but I bet he’ll do well with this bigger canvas he seems headed for.
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.