Turn it Up
2000, R, 95 min. Directed by Robert Adetuyi. Starring Jason Statham, Tamala Jones, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Ja Rule, Prakazrel Michel.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Sept. 15, 2000
It's debatable whether the overall state of American film has improved much over the past few years, but one thing's for sure: Today's movies, with an amazing degree of consistency, look absolutely stunning. That thought struck me with unusual force as I was watching Turn It Up, Robert Adetuyi's contribution to the popular modern genre of macho crime dramas about drug-dealing hip-hop gunslingers in the hood. Major respect is obviously due to our nation's graduate film programs. When even greenhorn directors like Adetuyi are achieving such a high degree of visual assurance and sophistication with their first shots out of the box, this constitutes a quiet revolution in the state of the art. But there's a further implication here. With formerly stratospheric levels of cinematic excellence established as the new status quo, there's a greater premium than ever before on other artistic factors - writing, acting, and conceptual originality - as means of establishing degree of merit. Applying these standards to Turn It Up ... well, let's just say they define with unusual clarity the difference between sizzle and steak. Sort of a Purple Rain with lots more machine guns, cussing, and bloody beatdowns, its story deals with the ethical quandaries of a young hardcore rapper called Diamond (Michel, aka third-wheel vocalist Pras of the Fugees) who dabbles in low-level street crime to buy studio time and help support his mom. Rule, also a real-life rap MC, plays Diamond's childhood buddy, Gage, a loyal but dimwitted loose cannon whose recklessness gets both men in serious hot water with sadistic drug boss "Mister B" (Statham). This generic plot is annoying enough, but even more damning is the lack of any apparent effort by the filmmakers to encourage us to believe in or care about their characters. Michel's stiff, oddly disassociated acting style is at direct odds with Diamond's supposedly all-consuming passion for music. Other characters, including Jones as his pregnant girlfriend and Hall as his long-absent jazz musician father, serve clear enough structural functions, but their interactions with Diamond are almost completely lacking in emotional veracity. They're there, we sense, only because such characters are customary in movies of this type. Perhaps worst of all, the story is set up as a tragedy with complex moral dimensions yet features a hero, Diamond, whom we quickly make as a shallow, lazy, self-centered little chickenshit, not the gangsta rappin' Hamlet we're evidently intended to see. In short, Turn It Up is definitive modern cinematic eye-candy with all the connotations of empty calories that term implies.