2018, R, 104 min. Directed by Shōjirō Nishimi, Guillaume 'Run' Renard. Starring Orelsan, Gringe, Redouanne Harjane, Féodor Atkine, Kelly Marot, Julien Kramer, Emmanuel Karsen.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 2, 2018
The opening to street gang anime MFKZ could be drawn straight from any urban fantasy: a woman running down a street with a swaddled child – the classic animated setup for a messianic future. Cut to the alternative reality now: The baby is a teen called Angelino (voiced by controversial French rapper Orelsan), running errands in Dark Meat City, a scummy mix of Los Angeles, San Diego, and São Paulo, where armed mobs rule the streets, and luchadores are the only megastars (and secretly the guardians of the city, descended from Aztec warriors). Cue ultraviolence, gang stereotypes, and a bucketload of plots that never really go anywhere.
This Japanese/French co-production, based in the indie comic by writer-director Guillaume 'Run' Renard, has all the cultural subtlety of Hotline Miami, or one of the more fantasy-tinged episodes of The Boondocks (considering it was released internationally under the full title of Mutafukaz, nuance was never going to be its strong point). That Angelino is drawn in jet black with a massive sphere for a head – so pronounced that his friends call him 8 Ball – points to how both French and Japanese pop culture can be comfortable with caricatures that seem pretty damn racist to American audiences. But that’s complicated by the fact that his best friends are Vinz, who has a Ghost Rider-esque flaming skull for a head, and Willy, a talking bipedal cat who spouts conspiracy theories. Meanwhile most other characters are drawn either semirealistically or in a more classically caricatured fashion, and the backgrounds are master works of detail, crammed with street signs and pop culture nods.
MFKZ is undoubtedly packed full of ideas and creativity, like a chase scene that suddenly cuts to top-down shooter-style gameplay, or a third-act dive into deep red backgrounds. But a half-baked global invasion subplot, characters disappearing for extended periods (most especially ghetto fantasy girl Luna, one of only two speaking roles), and that creeping discomfort when it comes to race give the story two left feet. The look and flow reinforce that animation mavericks Studio 4ºC has taken the crown of most explosively exciting anime studio from long-time kings Madhouse; but while it feels like a wall of graffiti come to life, it often devolves into a pastiche of a copy of street culture. In a week when Joseph Kahn's masterful celebration/takedown Bodied is stretching every convention through ingenuity, MFKZ is about as subtle as a house brick.