Bungle in the Jungle

The Rooftops coming-attractions trailer certainly appears to be promoting a dance movie. And because the film is directed by Robert West Side Story Wise and executive-produced by Taylor White Nights Hackford, there seems no reason to believe otherwise. Heck, even the press materials say the thing "explodes with music and dance."

However, now that I've seen Rooftops, I can assure you that--no matter what you've heard, read or assumed--this is not a dance movie. But it's close. It's a dunce movie. And it doesn't explode so much as wheeze.

I don't mean to imply there's no dancing whatsoever. There is some, but you might not recognize it. Called "combat dance," it looks more like selected acrobatic exercises from Chuck Norris' Shape Up or Ship Out Kung-Fu Workout Video.

If I may once again rely on the press materials (always a big mistake), "combat dance" is derived from the Brazilian martial-arts discipline known as Capoeira, and has been popular on the East Coast for "some time." That's a claim I can believe. On the East Coast, you may recall, the Funky Chicken was popular for some time.

There is one nice thing to say about "combat dance." For a few brief moments here and there, it prevents the actors from participating in the alleged plot. Because of Wise's involvement, plus similarities in characters, situations and setting (New York's "Alphabet City"), Rooftops could have been called Lower East Side Story. Or, for the sake of both accuracy and brevity, Least Side Story.

The hero is "T" (Jason Gedrick), an orphaned teen-loner whose parents must have died right when they started to teach him how to spell his name. "T" survives Manhattan's meanest streets partly because he's the local, undisputed champeen at combat dancing, in which enemy dance partners square off, kick and grunt like Bruce Lee and try to force each other off-stage without ever making physical contact. (Hey! It is the Funky Chicken, isn't it?). But mainly "T" survives because he rarely ventures onto the mean streets from his quaint home--a rooftop water tower. Alas, the mean streets venture skyward when an evil crack dealer named Lobo (Eddie Velez) and his evil, crack-dealing henchmen decide that the abandoned tenement building beneath "T's" unique abode would make a swell high-rise crack house.

But "T" keeps his cool, even when the baddies throw him from his own rooftop (a multistory fall that results in a nasty cheek bruise), burn down his water tower (while he's in it), and force his new, sultry girlfriend (Troy Beyer) to be their lookout. In fact, "T" remains cool until the baddies kill his most lovable pal, a prepubescent graffiti artist (Alexis Cruz) who in an earlier scene made the fatal mistake of saying, "Man, I wish these nights would last forever." Anyone who says things like that in movies like this is begging to die.

Even so, "T" seems surprised by his pal's demise and vows revenge. I should point out that he does not do this verbally. Instead, he musters up a very stern, menacing glare that, if translated into dialogue, would say, "I vow revenge." (No wonder "T's" last name is Eastwood!)

That "T" doesn't actually say "I vow revenge" is a shocker, since screenwriter Terence Brennan rarely lets action speak louder than four-, ten- and twelve-letter words. Or hilariously overwritten speeches, like the jaw-dropper "T" delivers to explain how he became an orphan. Seems his folks got drunk and fought, Dad threw Mom out into the rain, Mom climbed up the side of the house toward a window, dangled from a rain gutter for a while, then slipped and fell on an electrical wire.

What about Dad? Aw, he just hanged himself. How anticlimactic of him.
At times, you do suspect that, somewhere deep within the awfulness of Rooftops, there's a mediocre movie about homeless and rejected young people trying to bust out. The leads are attractive and reasonably energetic; the photography is crisp and colorful; and the score (by Michael Kamen and the Eurythmics' Dave Stewart) often fools you into thinking that something interesting is happening.

But Wise utilizes these mid-size plusses with the pizazz of a very old, tired, once-popular director desperate to be relevant once again. Add a lame script and the less-than-phenomenal introduction of combat dance, and you've got all the reason you need to stand clear of Rooftops while yelling, "Jump! Jump!"

ROOFTOPS Directed by Robert Wise; screenplay by Terence Brennan; cinematography by Theo Van de Sande; edited by William Reynolds; music by David A. Stewart and Michael Kamen; with Jason Gedrick, Troy Beyer, Tisha Campbell, Alexis Cruz, and Eddie Velez. Rated