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Even if you don’t know your Dutty Wine from your Hottie Hottie Bogle, your Pop Di Collar from your Row Di Boat, or your Wave from your Wacky Dip, chances are you’ll recognize the pulsating moves and sounds in King of the Dancehall as the frequent inspiration for artists like Beyonce and Rihanna. As writer, director and star, Nick Cannon immerses himself in the vibrant Jamaican dance scene to return those bold syncopated beats and motorized bumps and grinds to their Kingston street-culture origins. If his raggedy storytelling skills don’t match his affection for the subject, the unpolished craftsmanship is as much a part of the movie’s kick as its humor and hot rhythms.
What it is, basically, is an entertaining mess that benefits from Cannon’s relaxed charisma as well as from the extensive exhibition of his sculpted physique. Tank tops are tossed with abandon, including one hilarious nude-look mesh number in rasta colors that comes off to showcase the rippling muscles of his character Tarzan Brixton in triplicate, as multiple images of him are shown practicing dance moves on the Jamaican shore. Call it a vanity project if you will, but there’s something inherently likeable about Cannon’s chutzpah, both in front of and behind the camera.
Among his inspirations, Cannon has cited City of God, which is reflected in the restless energy and saturated tropical colors; as well as Saturday Night Fever and Dirty Dancing. Unfortunately, it’s more the latter film’s contrived 2004 ersatz sequel, Havana Nights, that this formulaic string of clichés evokes. But hey, who doesn’t love a dance-off? Clearly not Cannon, for whom the element of competition has been a unifying career thread, from his breakout role in Drumline to his comedy improv battle series, Wild ‘n Out, to his 2014 directing debut, School Dance.
The film is based on a true story and, not that the plotting-by-numbers supplies much authenticity, it’s punctuated throughout by documentary-style commentary from Moses “Beenie Man” Davis, who also provides some soundtrack tunes.
The story begins with Tarzan’s release after five years in prison. Returning home to his ailing mother (Whoopi Goldberg, barely awake) in Brooklyn, he learns that she spent everything she had on his legal fees and is unable to afford healthcare. Having stashed away $5,000 before he went inside, Tarzan travels to Jamaica to team up with his cousin Allestar, aka “All Star Toast” (Busta Rhymes), to move high-grade low-cost ganja at huge profits.
The veteran hip-hop star’s flair for broad comedy in helpfully subtitled thick patois is the best thing about this early section, and the blast of a time he appears to be having is quite infectious. In the midst of a spat with his lady, Allestar has temporarily moved back in with his no-nonsense mother (Dorothy Cunningham, hilarious) — “It was Christmas 1979 the last time she smiled,” says Tarzan in one of his too-frequent voiceover notes — so the two grown cousins sleep on bunk beds like outsize kids.
A local stunner named Maya instantly catches Tarzan’s eye, played by Kimberly Patterson, who applied to the makeup department but was recruited instead to be Cannon’s leading lady. She’s the daughter of a stern holy man (Louis Gossett Jr.), but her wild sensuality on the dancefloor suggests anything but prayer.
We learn that dancehall originated in the 1970s but has roots as far back as the ‘40s, and as dancers of all colors, shapes and sizes shimmy and pop and limbo and leap, Tarzan observes, “Down here, they put the ‘nasty’ in gymnastics.” It’s one of the cardinal rules of filming dance that the camera should never forget the feet, but cinematographer Luis Perez more often opts for the bouncing booty shot, a choice pretty much dictated by the sexually provocative moves. The dance scenes become somewhat repetitive but the athleticism on display is off the charts.
Maya explains to Tarzan that dancehall prowess is an essential part of bad-boy currency in Kingston, and that if he wants to make headway with her he had better learn to feel the beat. She gives him lessons in Daddy’s church, of all places, but keeps it strictly terpsichorean. “I consider myself a queen,” she tells him. “A man has to be a king before he can enter the castle.” To prepare him for that inevitable coronation, she hooks him up with the best underground dance crew in town, the All-Star Blazers.
Tarzan spends months refining his dance skills, while also building up his weed operation. But he ruffles the feathers of Young Dada (Colin “Collie Buddz” Harper), the white son of a crime kingpin, by intruding on his turf and getting mixed up with Dada’s sizzling half-sister, Lady Kaydeen (Kreesha Turner). She and Maya are old enemies, and their rivalry is played out on the dancefloor as their respective crews, the Dutty Gyals and the Ladyeez, do battle.
Dada’s goons and the corrupt cops on his payroll put a serious crimp in Tarzan’s operations, and things look grim until Maya’s father uses his connections to help. Determined to go straight and honor a promise made to his mother, Tarzan sees the cash prize in a dance clash as his key to a fresh start. But while things get serious with Maya, Kaydeen doesn’t take rejection lightly, calling in her sociopathic gangster father (Peter Stormare, in a bonkers performance) to dole out punishment.
To his credit, Cannon chooses not to wrap it all up with an improbably happy ending, but instead to anoint Tarzan as a legend in a bittersweet conclusion that carries on his legacy. Even on the rare occasions when the story does take an unpredictable turn, however, there’s a rote feel to the proceedings, with the lack of shading in the characters and performances robbing the romantic thread of much depth. Some truly awkward closeups don’t help in that regard.
Cannon favors the busy cutting and frenetic pace of music videos, while handling dialogue scenes with more obligation than interest. That means the dramatic stakes never feel terribly real, even when Dada is out for blood. But the movie comes alive on the dancefloor, which is where it matters most, and the film partly compensates in scrappy charm for what it lacks in sophistication.
Production company: Ncredible Entertainment
Cast: Nick Cannon, Whoopi Goldberg, Busta Rhymes, Kimberly Patterson, Kreesha Turner, Louis Gossett Jr., Moses “Beenie Man” Davis, Colin “Collie Buddz” Harper, Peter Stormare, Dorothy Cunningham, Screechie, Carl Bradshaw
Director-screenwriter: Nick Cannon
Producer: Nick Cannon, Roger Ubina
Director of photography: Luis Perez
Production designer: Khahil Deane
Costume designer: Dexter Pottinger
Editors: Harvey White, Erik C. Andersen
Music: Salaam Remi
Choreographer: Jae Blaze
Casting directors: Odessa Chambers, Mellicent Dyane
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Sales: ICM Partners
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