By Stephanie Zacharek
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Before the opening credits of All About the Benjamins have rolled, we've seen Ice Cube clothesline a girl in a bikini and repeatedly zap a redneck in the testicles even after he's been subdued. Not half an hour later, Cube's calling his Middle Eastern boss "rag-top son of a bitch" and pointing a gun at a child. Moments after that, he's torturing a helpless foe by drilling metal screws into the man's bloody forearm. Flawed heroes are all well and good, but it's hard to root for such an utter bastard, especially when his only motivation is to get hold of diamonds that were never rightfully his to begin with.
Cube, playing bounty hunter Bucum (pronounced, appropriately, "book 'em"), seems to be counting on his star charisma to get the viewers on his side. Think about it: The man once known for rapping about hurling profanities at police, threatening Korean grocery store owners and referring to white folks as snakes and devils assumes he'll be inherently likable. Then again, some of his CDs are balancing acts; in 1998, he released War and Peace (The War Disc), then followed it two years later with its Peace Discsequel -- yin and yang, yo. No such luck here. Cube can't even seem to muster an alternate facial expression to his trademark scowl. It's no better a performance than one would expect from a musician, except that Cube has Three Kings and Boyz N the Hood under his belt, so we know he can do better. Perhaps he fears that playing anything other than a bully at this point will compromise his carefully cultivated gangsta image.
Bucum desperately needs some money because he doesn't like having to work for a boss who, you know, tells him what to do and stuff. He's trying to go into business for himself as a private investigator, and might even have the money if he didn't waste it on $600 tropical fish that tend to die within a couple of hours. In the meantime, he's stuck with low-paying assignments, such as pursuing small-time hustler Reggie Wright (Mike Epps, best known for replacing Chris Tucker in the Friday sequel). Wright's general M.O. is to rip off convenience stores with the help of two foul-mouthed old ladies, who say things like, "You still talkin' shit, bitch?" as a way of getting cheap laughs.
In an extremely unlikely coincidence, Wright wins the lottery on the same day he accidentally stumbles upon a diamond heist, only to then leave the winning ticket in the jewel thieves' van. Promptly caught by Bucum, who's upset that the thieves shot at him while he was trying to grab Wright, the con man persuades his captor to help him get the diamonds and the lottery ticket by pursuing the bad guys. Or something like that.
What follows is a bunch of poorly choreographed chases whose ineptness director Kevin Bray (a veteran video helmer for the likes of 'N SYNC, Ben Folds Five and De La Soul) tries to disguise with every trick in the book: drop-frame, freeze-frame, insertion of black-and-white stills, slo-mo, repeat action and so on. The film's fast-paced enough that most probably won't think to look at their watches, but not quite quick enough to gloss over plot problems. When not extrapolating huge chunks of exposition from nothing, Cube and Epps are stumped by setups so obvious you'll be 10 steps ahead of them. If the point is comedic banter, that's not too effective, either. Though occasionally amusing, Epps' jokes tend toward the very obvious: wearisome references to Christopher Reeve's paralysis, Robert Downey Jr.'s back-and-forth to the jailhouse and copious references to the large amounts of pot that black people smoke. (Doesn't anyone ever find this stuff offensive?)
The villain of the piece -- Robert Williamson, played by scar-faced Tommy Flanagan -- turns out to be a menacing boat salesman. Since his boats apparently sell for millions of dollars, it isn't clear why he needs the diamonds, but he's Scottish and says "fuck" every other word, which is apparently enough to indicate his evilness. Plus, since we've established that Bucum hates people of other ethnicities, Williamson needs to be even more racist, so we need to learn that he doesn't sell boats to nonwhites and uses the redundant slur "black nigger." Flanagan fits the bill physically, but is driven to so overact that you may forget how good he was in Ratcatcher.
Ultimately, All About the Benjamins plays like a knockoff of Michael Bay's already derivative and much more fun Bad Boys, only with even less plot. It also recalls the worst qualities of John Singleton's mean-spirited Shaft, though Samuel L. Jackson is a tad more inherently likable than Ice Cube. Though it's as tiresome as the Puff Daddy song from which it takes its name, this film might just become a hit and spawn another franchise as intellectually bankrupt as the Friday series.
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