Straight Outta Compton (2015)

★★★★

Straight Outta Compton PosterDirector: F. Gary Gray

Release Date: August 14th, 2015 (US); August 28th, 2015 (UK)

Genre: Biography; Drama; History

Starring: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell

Full disclosure: I’m not a big late-80s/early-90s hip hop fan. Before F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton, I likely would have associated the letters “N.W.A.” with a professional wrestling promotion as opposed to anything of the rap variety. But cinema is a great enlightenment tool and here I am, enlightened, and all the better for it. The film takes us all the way back to 1986, to Compton, California and to the inception of one of the most influential groups in music history. Not that I know anything, but to me Straight Outta Compton plays like a film worthy of the N.W.A.’s hefty legacy.

It is primarily centred around the three most pivotal members: Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Ice Cube (Jackson O’Shea Jr.), and Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins). We meet the former surrounded by guns and drugs, and the latter hopes and dreams. Despite its obvious pitfalls — impending violence and police sirens — the Compton hip hop culture proudly wears an aspirational quality that bellows from the screen; this is especially true during musical interludes, though these aren’t interludes as much as natural story progressions. And it is this underbelly of aspiration that resonates universally, beyond hip hop. What we have is a piece that serves its real life protagonists honourably by dismissing glorification and highlighting the relatable traits they foster.

This feels like the rise of the N.W.A., not an imitation. Every performance is authentic, from Jackson O’Shea Jr. who is more than just his father’s uncanny lookalike, authoritative and assured, to Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, the rebel of rebels turned sympathetic figure. Mitchell sieves through the aggravating side of his character in order to trap something really genuine. It helps that the focus is not always on Eazy-E; we spend significant time with Dr. Dre, played with a terrific sense of roundedness by Corey Hawkins, and with Paul Giamatti’s Jerry Heller, a businessman with dollar signs in his eyes. This is a cast rich in talent, both raw and honed, backed up by strong supporting players (R. Marcos Taylor as Suge Knight; Aldis Hodge and Neil Brown Jr. as MC Renn and DJ Yella, respectively).

As is always the case when a biopic hits the stands, much has been said about historical fudgings. Most notably, the non-reference to Dr. Dre’s violent outbursts against women. That’s a fair quarrel, though I can only judge what I see. The guys on-screen are absolutely not angels, nor do they hold themselves to such a moral standard. They partake in overblown confrontations — the camera makes a point to zoom in on a tightly-grasped glass bottle during one conflict. Women are not treated well, often as little more than instruments to use (this does change upon the arrival of maturity). And bouts of in-fighting gain frequency as the group gains success. You believe in the bond between the members, but you also recognise the potential for bloated egos to overrule harmony. So when bloated egos overrule harmony, it’s not a shock.

The most charged relationship Gray’s outing explores, though, is not one between individual artists, but a collective one between all artists and the police. Our real world news media has been awash with the pitiful treatment, and worse, of black men in particular by US police officers, and this exceptionally tense relationship is reflected from the word go. For instance, we see Dr. Dre on the receiving end of a brutish arrest for no apparent reason: “I was literally just standing there… that’s it.” Police brutality is obviously an issue with complex ties to the rise of the N.W.A., therefore the extent to which it is featured here does seem justified and in many ways inevitable, but that inevitability does not diminish its impact at all.

Cop cars stalk the group constantly; they appear from nowhere almost to the point of parody, their lights flashing and alarms blaring. Conversations between officer and victim cement the shoddy use of power structures — one side inflicting orders with no real basis, the other side angrily demanding an explanation. This amounts to a handful of on-the-nose interactions (“You can’t come down here and harass my clients because they’re black”) but then these interactions are probably wrapped up in absolute truth, which makes the whole saga all the more infuriating for us folks on the side of those being unlawfully discriminated against.

On a lighter note, at two and a half hours long the film advances with unrivalled exuberance. This is all Gray’s direction; you can feel it. Be it in establishing compelling dialogues or encouraging us to head-bop along, the director never lets up: we zip through recording sessions and into electric live performances, and the spotlight evolves from a lone studio glow into an array of kinetic beams. The best example of this vitality is in an unrelenting diss sequence during which the picture cuts between the disser dissing and the dissees listening. It is a track that stems from a dispute based on artistic and financial integrity, another industry strand the piece explores in some detail.

It’s not as earnest as something like Crazy Heart or as indebted to soul-searching as a Walk the Line, but Straight Outta Compton thrives on the strength of its key figures and the scintillating, abrasive music they make. For someone like me, a representative of those uninitiated in the musical culture on display, this character-centric approach affords the film a grounding from which to flourish. Good characterisation, good storytelling — these are two of the tenets of good cinema, and Straight Outta Compton revels in both. That makes it good cinema.

Straight Outta Compton - Corey Hawkins

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

22 Jump Street (2014)

★★★

22 Jump Street PosterDirectors: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

Release Date: June 6th, 2014 (UK); June 13th, 2014 (US)

Genre: Action; Comedy; Crime

Starring: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill

As simply a comedy film, 22 Jump Street lands its fair share of guffaws. And this is primarily offspring of the humour genre: from acting upon the comedic strengths of its leading pair to unwaveringly owning up to sequel-dom, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s second trek down Jump Street fulfils many a Mark Kermode six laugh test. Yet, albeit competently amusing and even occasionally side-splitting, the outing ceases to be complete. Though the directors’ panache for funny bellows through, their film isn’t consistently hilarious. Not many are. Necessary then, is another anchor to steady the ship when proceedings aren’t quite as raucous; a sturdy narrative perhaps. Sadly, the one presented to us is rather flimsy when it comes to chapters that aren’t laden with jokes.

The final bell having rung on their undercover high school lives, Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) now find themselves caught up in a whole new world: college. Their location is the only difference though, given the partners are once again involved in a narcotics mystery. The new drug is called WHYPHY and has already seen to one student’s untimely demise. Whilst attempting to sideline nostalgic football dreams and romantic engagements, Schmidt and Jenko must also overcome any strains in their own relationship in order to solve the criminal dealings before things get any further out of hand.

Opting for humongous sign-waving as opposed to measly eye-winking, 22 Jump Street isn’t exactly flippant in self-referential deliberation. After an opening montage that takes us through the key scenes of its predecessor — Previously, on 21 Jump Street… — we soon find ourselves camped alongside Schmidt and Jenko in Nick Offerman’s office where Offerman’s Chief Deputy Hardy is openly counteracting the potential pitfalls of sequel syndrome by facing the fact head on. (“Do the same thing as last time, everyone’s happy.”) It’s back to the old headquarters for our two agents then, though the base has conveniently moved across the road. In the background preparations are under way for the construction of 23 Jump Street.

There aren’t any thoughtless attempts to evolve the Jump Street apple cart and the film vociferously makes us aware of that. Though in doing so, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s creation (or recreation) takes on a disguise of irony that is inherently funny. It uses this self-referential prerogative as a weapon, to cut through any sequel-related audience apprehensions and subsequently endear itself to us. We are constantly reminded that our expectations should be low, or at least no higher than last time around, for what’s about to come is a mirror image. The ruse works; we’re too busy laughing at the source’s jokes — driving through a cash machine — to fully consider the mechanics of the source itself. Essentially, by admitting the sequel is going to be much the same as the original, 22 Jump Street is a more engaging proposition because it serves and then effectively manipulates our preconceptions.

That’s just one running gag. The film motions forward in its prejudicial tirade by tapping into assumed college culture too. The volatile drug is aptly named WHYPHY, pronounced Wi-Fi, and it’s no coincidence that the side effects are a temporary buzz followed by likely danger. Notions surrounding internet addiction are vaguely pertinent but never wholly realised. We discover that the student majoring in art is unlikely to make any money when she graduates (who knew?) and there are also an obscene amount of “Bros” and “Dudes” verbally volleyed between the football players. College satire isn’t the film’s strongest comical outlet.

Indeed, the funniest moments throughout 22 Jump Street are delivered by the two leads. Both Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are comfortable in their roles and the duo’s dynamic prevails as a result. It’s refreshing to see Hill continue along a path that he obviously loves navigating despite having tasted the golden allure of critical success. The peaks of his dramatic work — most of those roles are infused with humour anyway — would suggest that he’s probably a highly sought after fellow, but he seemingly still has much to offer in this genre.

Hill plays the socially awkward Schmidt across from Tatum’s Jenko, whose smarts are inversely proportional to his skill at football. The two funniest scenes involve each man without the other; it’s Schmidt’s slam poem versus Jenko’s slowly simmering realisation, and the difficulty in picking a winner is an indication of how funny both actors are in equal measure. Ice Cube, who returns as Captain Dickson, should also be noted for his hugely enjoyable turn as their always animated boss. Ride Along might have crashed and burned, but the man of many trades has shown he can be infectiously amusing when delivering superior material.

Unfortunately, the dramatic narrative between Schmidt and Jenko is a problem. Unlike the smart use of self-reference, there’s nothing shrewd about the less than budding brotherly developments between the two. Their collective arc is annoyingly mundane and, although this could be construed as another of the film’s this-is-a-sequel-so-don’t-expect-much contributions, it falls far short of the entertainment mark. The troll-like concept is funny in its manifestation as a running gag with frequent pit stops, but it fails to reward when blending into an overly schmaltzy and all too familiar story. In this instance there aren’t any jokes to veil Schmidt and Jenko’s generic bond and when attempted wisecracks are communicated, they fall on deaf ears. (The open investigation malarkey is a bit cringe-inducing due to its lack of invention and continued implementation.)

Two-hour-long gags aside, was it worth creating a sequel? I’d say so. Though not nearly as snappy or galvanising as The Lego Movie, Lord and Miller’s latest offering does trump their first visit to Jump Street. The deliberation now centres on where the franchise is headed next, if anywhere. It looks like the filmmakers have shot themselves in the foot regarding the prospect of a third film. (That sequel quip won’t work twice.) We’ll just have to wait and see.

There’s no uncertainty here. If this review of 22 Jump Street is at least moderately successful, I’ll consider writing another one. Fair warning: It’ll be exactly the same.

22 Jump Street - Hill, Tatum, Cube

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer