Monday, May 11, 2009

Next Day Air

By Elise Nakhnikian

Next Day Air is a heist comedy about men acting tough – with an emphasis on the acting.

Leo (Donald Faison, Scrubs’ goofily endearing Dr. Turk), a weed-addled delivery man for the Fed Ex-like Next Day Air, kicks the plot into gear by delivering several bricks of coke to the wrong South Philly apartment. The box lands in the laps of Guch (Wood Harris) and his sidekick Brody (Mike Epps), a pair of inept small-time crooks who have just botched a robbery.

Seeing the drugs as their chance at financial salvation, Guch and Brody arrange to sell them to Brody’s cousin and his sidekick. Meanwhile, the deadly dealer who sent the bricks flies in with a sidekick of his own to hook up with his South Philly connection, Jesus (Cisco Reyes), and reclaim the drugs.

This is the first feature for screenwriter Blair Cobbs and director Benny Boom, who made his bones shooting music videos for hip-hop artists. Tired of “urban” (i.e. black and Latino) comedies without any smarts or edge, they wanted to make an urban version of a Guy Ritchie/Quentin Tarantino-type movie.

I wish he'd aimed a little higher, since those two have been so widely imitated by now that even their own movies can feel derivative. Still, here’s always room for a smart, stylish crime caper that gets inside the minds of its characters — especially if it’s funny to boot. And Boom and Cobbs get close to their goal, delivering the smarts, the humor, and a Grade-A cast.

Faison’s innocent stoner and his cynical workmate Eric, who’s played by the always wonderful Mos Def, don’t get as much screen time as you might expect, if you’ve seen the trailer, but they make the most of what they get. Mos Def is especially distinctive as a world-weary ex-con whose easy charm helps him scam people just enough to get by – and gets him out of a very tense yet funny stickup.

Wood Harris, whose calculating Avon Barksdale was the cold, hard center of The Wire’s first season, shows a very different side here, playing a whole set of subtly comic variations on blustering incompetence. And Yasmin Deliz is a delight as Jesus’s take-no-prisoners girlfriend, Chita, the funniest tough-talking beauty to hit the screen since Rosie Perez.

The dialogue is good – sometimes very good—and the filmmakers amp up the energy with a Latin-flavored soundtrack and frequent cuts to flashbacks shot in high-contrast video. But they also switch the whole tone of the movie at times, and that’s not done so deftly.

Most of the time, we’re in a world of comically exaggerated criminality where everyone’s on the make and no one’s getting hurt, the kind of place where Guch’s gun jams when he tries to shoot a guard after a botched bank robbery and Leo’s truck is aswarm with people trying to steal his boxes the moment he stops to buy some weed.

These criminals work hard at being hard. Jesus practices talking trash in front of his mirror, pulling out a series of ever bigger guns until he’s satisfied that he looks scary enough. He may remind you of Travis Bickel in front of a mirror in Taxi Driver, but this dress rehearsal is funny rather than frightening because Jesus isn’t fired up by paranoia or zealotry. He just wants to make some easy money.

So does just about everyone else. Leo, who tosses around his “handle with care” express delivery boxes as if they were Frisbees, is the closest thing we get to a responsible working man. But then, it’s the women who really get things done here. We get a glimpse of the fierceness of the women in Leo’s boss (Debbie Allen) and an eyeful in Chita, who insists on going along when Jesus looks for the drugs — so she can protect him.

Making Jesus’s glossy, long-legged girlfriend the most fearless of this movie’s tough guys is one of several recurring bits – like Brody’s habit of botching jobs because he mishears Guch’s orders – that Next Day Air tosses into the pot to add a little flavor.

But just as it all starts coming together, the filmmakers throw us off by throwing in some violence so realistic it’s hard to watch. The ending is the worst offender, a protracted bloodbath that drags the movie to a near-halt, spelling out a don’t-try-this-at-home moral about not risking your life for cash – and then switching tones one last time to undermine its own message.

If only they’d stuck to character-based humor and kept the violence stylized or off-camera, the filmmakers might have created a minor cult classic. Instead, they’ve cooked up an entertaining but uneven diversion for people who don’t mind a little graphic violence.

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