I feel a little guilty for reviewing more Netflix movies than usual lately. But I’ve been catching up on some stuff and I think THEY CLONED TYRONE (2023), if not the best of them, is still the kind of thing that sinister corporation owes us as a civilization and culture. They gotta balance out their ills a little by spending money on movies by new directors, that have interesting ideas. Give them a name cast and some production value but let them make something that’s not necessarily very commercial, at least not enough that they would’ve made it if they were in the movie business, looking for paying customers.
This one they actually promoted more than most of their stuff and they still didn’t give a fuck, they released it on the same day as BARBIE and OPPENHEIMER! It’s distinct from the typical Netflix joint both structurally and stylistically – structurally because it has the confidence to let you be confused for a while before it starts to reveal what’s going on, or even that there is something going on; stylistically because it avoids that modern digital cleanness, instead having a beautifully grainy 16mm sort of texture to it. I assume they shot it digitally and did that in post (would it really have cigarette burns on the reel changes if it was never meant for projection?) but it works just the same.
The look fits with the movie’s obvious adjacence to Blaxploitation cinema, with its funky/trippy score and the flamboyant fashion and lingo of Slick Charles (Jamie Foxx, STEALTH) and Yo-Yo (Teyonah Parris, CHI-RAQ), an “entrepreneur” (pimp) and his employee who seem lifted out of the ‘70s. But Charles owes money to Fontaine (John Boyega, THE WOMAN KING), a stone-faced, gold-grilled drug dealer who seems more like he’s from… the ‘90s? Early 2000s? Now? Definitely not the ‘70s, because he carries a flip phone. And a neighborhood kid (Trayce Malachi, “Young Bobby,” Wu-Tang: An American Saga) who snitches to him about his competition always talks to him about Spongebob. But later Yo-Yo talks about investing in blockchain.
And just like it mixes those time periods together, it mixes some very different tones. Charles and Yo-Yo are broad characters who say funny things, and the details of the Twilight Zone or THEY LIVE type scenario they help Fontaine uncover are definitely designed to be absurd. But Fontaine is a serious character, and not just a straight man – he’s an actual protagonist. To me this leans more dramatic than comedic. Maybe it’s just that the satirical points it’s making are so acidic.
First we get to see the lives of these three when they don’t notice anything weird going on. But then one night as Fontaine is leaving from the motel where Slick Charles stays, an enemy (J. Alphonse Nicholson, JUST MERCY) blocks his car in, there’s a shootout, and both sides lose. He’s dead.
Until the next day, when he wakes up and does all the same things he normally does – bench presses, scratch offs, pouring some of his 40 in the cup of an old homeless man named Frog (Leon Lamar, FORCES OF NATURE). Seems like a GROUNDHOG DAY until he goes to get the money from Charles again and Charles freaks out because he saw him die last night.
So now this dealer turns his ruthless ferocity toward a more novel purpose – uncovering what the fuck is going on here. And he soon finds some pretty good evidence: an elevator hidden in a trap house that goes down to a secret underground laboratory where he finds his own corpse on a slab. Yeah, obviously the title tips us off – they cloned him. But the conspiracy goes deeper than that and involves (spoiler) mind control, grape drink, hair products, church, and a popular new spicy chicken that makes everyone laugh. For a second Charles is so happy to see Fontaine laughing for the first time ever, then he’s like… wait a minute. Shades of BLACK DYNAMITE’s Anaconda Malt Liquor, itself inspired by the white supremacist poisoning of the water supply plot in THREE THE HARD WAY, this time infused with the fury of Public Enemy dissing “Don’t Worry Be Happy” or Muhammad Ali calling Sly Stone a clown on the Mike Douglas Show. (Look it up if you don’t know the reference. It’s a doozy.)
TYRONE plays around with these stereotypes, makes it kind of uncomfortable how appealing the characters start to be, then reveals that they are trapped into these roles, for nefarious purposes. If you live in Pleasantville you’re a ‘50s sitcom character, if you live in The Glen you’re a movie’s idea of a pimp or a prostitute or a drug dealer or something. I don’t think it all works perfectly, but it’s too interesting and unusual not to be impressed.
Foxx and Paris get the laughs, but Boyega is the one I couldn’t take my eyes off of. You know, I thought it was funny that he made his Star Wars character talk like kind of a dork, but I got so used to him I almost forgot that wasn’t the regular John Boyega. Of course he also had a very different leading man turn in DETROIT, and now this is more like a grown up and American version of Moses, the stoic teenage anti-hero he played in ATTACK THE BLOCK. He also plays a couple different characters, including a variation on Fontaine with a California-specific accent. The guy is deceptively great. I should probly check out that one he did called BREAKING.
I need to give some credit to the score by Pierre Charles (STORY AVE) and Desmond Murray. Their music has such an authentic psychedelic haziness to it that when I looked up the credits I half expected it to be Adrian Younge, the guy who did BLACK DYNAMITE. That’s a big compliment. Almost every other movie that tries to fake a Blaxploitation sound is way too clean and forced. It can be embarrassing. This one is a keeper – some funky basslines and high hats, but drenched in echoey reggae and Afropop type horns. A mix of soulful and trippy that’s very appropriate for the premise of the movie. Netflix actually puts some of their soundtracks on vinyl, and if they get around to do this one I would actually buy it.
There’s also some well integrated modern hip hop (nobody I’m familiar with) and it’s funny that they got Erykah Badu to re-record her classic “Tyrone” so that it’s talking about the movie. Please do listen to the original, though, if you haven’t. It has the best punchline of any song I can think of.
THEY CLONED TYRONE is the first feature film directed by Juel Taylor, unless we count ACTORS ANONYMOUS (2017), “the film adaptation of James Franco’s popular novel,” where Taylor is one of twelve directors. I think this means he was a student in Franco’s class at USC. More notably he was one of the writers of CREED II and then he and co-writer Tony Rettenmaier did, uh, SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY. And then that hooked them up to do SHOOTING STARS, the movie about young Lebron James. I also saw an interview where they admitted doing a little work on TRANSFORMERS: RISE OF THE BEASTS for their CREED II buddy Steven Caple Jr. That’s good work if you can get it but don’t forget to also waste some corporation’s money on some weird shit like this.