“CB4" (citywide), a musical comedy about three gangsta rappahs from Locash, Calif., is part satire, part celebration. That’s what causes most of its problems.
The movie has bounce and bite, but it skitters around too much. Its needle is hip-hopping around between too many grooves. Co-writer/co-producer/star Chris Rock of “Saturday Night Live” plays the lead role of Albert Brown: a shy, almost fragile-looking middle-class Locash youth who turns himself into the oily-wigged, crotch-grabbing, jailhouse jive rapper, MC Gusto. And though Rock’s satiric aim is occasionally deadly, on other occasions his show seems to be turning into a showcase for a lot of major rap songs and records (which isn’t bad at all), and a more conventional ‘80s-style funny-money fairy tale about success (which isn’t good).
Rock loves rap. That’s the first thing that’s obvious about this movie--particularly in a droll little montage early on, where Ice-T, Ice Cube, Flavor Flav, Eazy E, Halle Berry and the Orlando Magic’s Shaquille O’Neal appear in quick succession to offer testimonials to the gritty-grabby greatness of Cell Block Four: CB4 for short.
These dubious eulogies, part of a puff-piece CB4 documentary being shot by the obsequious and idolatrous filmmaker A. White (Chris Elliot, son of Bob and Ray’s Bob), suggest we’re in for something in the vein of “This Is Spinal Tap” or “The Rutles"--a “mockumentary,” sending up both rap’s excesses and media’s hype. But Rock and his co-scenarist Nelson George--the essayist and occasional screenwriter-producer--drop this structure soon: a shame. They move the movie into flashback, and then flash-forward, tame it a little--even while they’re stripping the masks off their central trio: Albert/Gusto, Euripides Smalls alias Dead Mike (Allen Payne) and Otis O. Otis alias Stab Master Arson (Deezer D).
“CB4" has a terrific comic point: that the “street” overtones of rap can get co-opted by middle-class kids, who have no clear idea of what the street and the underclass really are. The mock-macho gang is a crock; the real street violence comes back to haunt them. Despite their bottle-tipping, dirty-mouthed devil-may-care in the opening scenes, these guys are gag gangsters. Albert has copped both his moniker and his maniacal act from the real Gusto: a murderous, misogynist, coke-sniffing, gun-waving dude played by Charlie Murphy--who’s a ringer for his younger brother, Eddie.
Murphy’s Gusto will eventually break out of jail and try to kill them but Albert, his copycat, is about as dangerous as Kool-Aid. And the rest of CB4 are shams, too, conscious or not. When Dead Mike, the Afrocentric ideologue/idealist of the trio, later records a consciousness-raising solo song, the lyrics sound like “I’m black; I’m black; I’m blackety-blackety-black.” And Otis a.k.a. Stab Master is a pudgy rich kid who wants amour with a real-life centerfold. They’re all from comfortable homes and, at one point, Albert’s Pops (Art Evans) reviles his son for pretending to be “street” when he wasn’t born poor--like Pops was.
“CB4" is directed by Tamra Davis--and she gives the movie the sizzle and style she put into her rock videos and her recent flashy film-noir update “Guncrazy.” Mostly, Davis tries to showcase the cast and the songs: the right ploy, since the cast and songs are the best things about “CB4.” Most of the actors give funny, full-bodied performances; the fullest bodied and funniest may be Khandi Alexander’s turn as Sissy, a voracious groupie with alligator eyes.
The score--by composer John Barnes and music supervisor Bill Stephney--is full of raucous rap parodies, rollicking rap standards (by Ice Cube, Ice-T, LL Cool J, Public Enemy and others), all mixed up so that no one who watches the movie will be able to say that rap is nothing more than rhymes and brags with a jackhammer beat. One of the more adventurous of the recent African-American comedies, it still gets bogged down in those movie-movie formulas, those phony recipes for success.
Chris Rock: Albert Brown/MC Gusto
Allen Payne: Euripides Smalls/Dead Mike
Deezer D: Otis O. Otis/Stab Master Arson
Chris Elliot: A. White
A Universal Pictures presentation of a Brian Grazer/Sean Daniel production. Director Tamra Davis. Producer Nelson George. Executive producers Sean Daniel, Brian Grazer. Screenplay by Chris Rock, George, Robert LoCash. Cinematographer Karl Lindenlaub. Editor Earl Watson. Costumes Bernie White. Music John Barnes. Music Supervision Bill Stephney. Production design Nelson Coates. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (for strong language, sexuality and drug content).