All About the Benjamins

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What happens when rappers run out of steam? Sadly, the industrious ones become actors, and frequently make movies like Ice Cube's All About the Benjamins?a pop project so uninspired its title promotes a hit song by some other rapper (the ultra slick Sean "Puffy" Combs). Cube's move to Hollywood is no longer the ascension one hoped for after his stand-out performances in Boyz N the Hood, Trespass, The Glass Shield, Three Kings or the films Friday and The Players Club, which he also wrote and produced. In those movies it looked like Cube would bring to the screen some of the insolence and insight of his rap albums. (Surprisingly, the female-centered The Players Club came closest, in addition to generating one of the best composite movie-soundtrack albums. Cube's good tracks there blended in with representative contributions by a range of artists from Jay-Z, DMX, Scarface, Master P, Pressha, Brownstone and the comedian Bernie Mac?altogether evoking a complete r&b/hiphop cycle of human troubles.)

Benjamins?full of unrepentant belligerence and mischief, guns, cars, money and bitches?could have been made by a 13-year-old (white or black) who just embraced those things as the prerogatives of hiphop culture. And that's the film's trouble. It doesn't say much for adults?like the now 32-year-old Cube (Oshea Jackson)?who persists in getting off on only those excesses. Cube wasn't the most radical mind in hiphop, but he had one of the most acute voices?expressive, tough and humorous, prone to saying and having things his way, even if the wrong way. This may, in fact, be the attitude that allows him to maneuver from the music industry to the film biz, but one can no longer pay attention to his voice with the same enthusiasm as before. Judging by Benjamins, Cube doesn't seem to have grown artistically. That's not some haughty dismissal; it is precisely what's wrong with the hiphop ethos as it increasingly becomes managed and replicated by commercial forces.

As Miami bounty hunter Bucum Jackson, Cube commodifies himself. His tough-guy act is so predictable it's practically a shtick?busy kicking white folks' asses, cursing back at his boss, balancing a chip on his thick, round shoulders. It's still the attitude he professed in his 1991 solo single "The Wrong Nigga to Fuck Wit." Yeah, Cube is still Cube (a persona so identifiable that the brilliant comic actor Aries Spears does a definitive impersonation of him on Mad TV), but his mannerisms in Benjamins do not evoke a distinct mentality or experience. (Bucum's penchant for buying $600 tropical fish just seems wasteful.) Cube has dimmed the individuality that made him an "artist" and now is just a husky and dusky version of the bad-tempered cops/dicks/bounty hunters from innumerable routine action flicks.

Anyone who has followed hiphop knows this comes from the teenage fascination with gangster flicks and blaxploitation movies that rappers tried to emulate. But after more than a decade of such juvenile infatuation, rap's bad-boy emphasis is tiresome. The amazing fact of hiphop's late-80s/early-90s peak is that it was?indisputably?better than blaxploitation. As Public Enemy, Ice-T, L.L. Cool J and De La Soul discovered their own storytelling form, they produced sounds that were phenomenally exciting?and expressive. In Benjamins, the diamond-smuggling mad-racist-killer story Cube presents (his production company is called "Cube Vision") is as rank as blaxploitation ever was, but worse?because it conveys no sociological impetus.

Running out of ideas this way means a pop artist has also run out of purpose. Benjamins shows no reason for being made other making money. Director Kevin Bray's only visual ingenuity comes during the credit sequence that engraves dollar bill patterns over still images of Miami lush life. But Bray isn't establishing a thematic commentary, it's just part of his fancy music video background, and it proves useless for storytelling. Shootouts, chases and fight scenes are patched together from out-of-scale shots, slo-mo shots and a mix of lenses that give disruptive, contrasting grain to consecutive images. This could be mistaken for a new big-screen comic-book style of the Ridley Scott/Michael Bay era, but it's so much less coherent and imaginative than the esthetic advances one used to hear in hiphop records. Benjamins is more evidence of Hollywood slowing down black pop artists' creativity?and of hiphop artists (whether Cube or Method Man and Redman in How High) settling for less.

Rappers have often defended the violence and vulgarity in their records by pointing to similar movie exaggerations, but to me that was always a poor argument and a badly chosen career model. The unexpected pleasure of Cube's Friday was that it found meaning and authenticity in areas of American life that mainstream movie culture overlooked. (In 1995, Friday made more money than Devil with a Blue Dress because, though declasse, its humor was also genuinely serious.) Benjamins sorely needs the same kind of transformation. Opening with a typical hiphop trope, it shows Bucum hunting down a white miscreant who watches a Bugs Bunny cartoon containing a racist black caricature?in other words, sampling Hollywood's racist past a la Spike Lee's Bamboozled. But there's little difference between that misrepresentation and Cube's own action-movie caricatures. It's only late into Benjamins that the blaxploitation cliches give way to something fresh.

Mike Epps, Cube's costar in the lame Next Friday, plays hustling con-man Reggie Wright, introduced during an overlong shoplifting scam that's not as delightful as intended. (Enlisting two retired Jewish ladies in the gag is both kindly and canny.) Epps is tall and peripatetic, given to silly grievances and feints of manliness. ("You can't fight!" says his luscious Latina girlfriend, played by Eva Mendes.) Much of Reggie's trash-talking ("I'm allergic to the judicial system") seems like neo-blackface jive until Bucum handcuffs him and then makes him a partner in a scheme to abscond with the bad guys' stolen diamonds. That's where Benjamins takes on a sly new tone. When Bucum and Reggie argue, Cube's rap facility overwhelms Epps' comedic flair. Cube brings out of himself true brotherly fractiousness, dramatizing the real-life bases of community antagonism as sharply as a bellicose rap duet?or a stinging, real-life contretemps. This is not just rapport, it's the same hard bond as in Cube's last great recording, "My Loved Ones" (on The Players Club CD), which stressed the limits of camaraderie and family commitment. It's a better, more complicated sense of friendship than what goes on between the rich and working-class students who hit the road together in Y Tu Mama Tambien. In the midst of Benjamins' folderol, there's something recognizable in Bucum's exasperation and Reggie's flailing?both men's grownup impatience and their adult male need for trust.

A rapper and a comedian must really know how to play the dozens; how to wound and feel. That's why the enmity and remorse between Cube and Epps?though brief?strike deeper notes than Alfonso Cuaron's trendy, class-denying flirtation. But Benjamins only has the essence of a developing friendship; it doesn't settle into the kind of human exploration that can fulfill a Saturday night's entertainment?or that might transcend the junk-movie trap hiphop artists seem doomed to fall into. If Cube ever learns to trust his maturity, he could put steam into Hollywood's rusty old engines. Imagine the unthinkable: a true hiphop movie revolution.


Bypass the glib sexploitation fantasy Y Tu Mama Tambien and head for Andre Techine's Loin (at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater on March 16). Techine revisits characters from his great Wild Reeds (Stephane Rideau, Gael Morel) but he also revisits themes from his earlier Les Innocents. The title means "far," but for Americans "Loin" also hints at Techine's knack for sensual depiction of emotional and political need.

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