Originally meant to be a show and then transformed into a TV movie, this Showtime original is a guilty pleasure if nothing else. The film is set in San Francisco and follows three young men who live drastically different lives yet are similar in more ways than they realize. The general theme is that San Francisco is incredibly diverse and has undergone many changes over time due to gentrification, an issue that most cities could relate to, yet in this case Lee highlights the trend by having an eccentric white family move into a gang related neighborhood where it doesn’t take long to see that they aren’t welcome. Meanwhile another section of town is run by the Asian mafia which is more or less a family monarchy that capitalizes off tourism and plays by their own rules. Somehow throughout the film Lee is able to get representatives of all three groups to intertwine, and while at times this development comes off as unrealistic, it still is definitively rich in culture as it showcases more than a few undeniable performances.
Anthony Mackie leads the impressive ensemble as a dreamer who is a product of his environment. Mackie is a central component to the V Dubs Mafia crew yet he’s vocal about his distaste for the violence and destruction that terrorizes his own neighborhood. When the white family moves into a house nearby their headquarters it is Mackie who befriends the film’s other main protagonist played by Nick Crowley. Crowley is maybe my least favorite character from any Spike Lee joint ever, yet i’ll refrain from speaking on his acting abilities as it may be exactly what his director had asked for. Nonetheless Crowley plays a credit card scammer who is painfully unconvincing as a “tough guy,” but again that was likely the point. He is embarrassed to be living in such a poor section of the city, and is baffled by his parents naive indifference to the gang members who live right next door. Laura Allen plays Crowley’s sister and offers a nice balance in comparison to the rest of the family, which otherwise puts forth a combination of over the top and forgettable performances altogether.
Malieek Straughter is ultimately the actor that moves the needle in this film, as he plays a soldier from V Dubs Mafia who is relentless in his harassment of his new caucasian neighbors. A particular scene in which he pulls out a gun on Crowley is effectively frightening, yet it also allows Mackie to shine as a voice of reason, which is a quality hard to come by amongst his contemporaries. Omari Hardwick (now the infamous Ghost from “Power”), Darris Love, and rapper JT The Bigga Figga make up the rest of the crew respectively, the latter who portrays the frustrated “Killa Ski” who is tired of the Asian demographics bootlegging his music in China-Town. (A quick side note is that a comical scene of Love ‘executive producing’ the new Killa Ski album is ingenious by Lee, as some elements of the rap game are just as informal in real life for better or for worse). Yet it is this narrative that connects Mackie with the film’s final main protagonist played by Ken Leung, who is an ambitious apprentice to the boss of the Asian mafia.
You’ll have to take my word for it that somehow someway the issue of bootlegging connects Leung to Mackie and then Mackie to Crowley, yet I’ll spare you the details to shorten the length of this review. What is crucial to note however is that the scenes involving Asian culture really elevate the film as a whole, specifically the chemistry between Leung and actress T.V. Carpio, whose beauty accentuates her power and royalty. Supporting characters in between offer menacing depictions of the Chinese mafia throughout the film, and even despite limited screen time the storyline of Leung’s lack of discipline and hunger for power is as clear as it needs to be. In many ways there are parallels between Leung and Crowley being in over their heads, while it is Mackie who is even keeled and more importantly the most capable of pulling this story together. Unfortunately there just wasn’t enough time to do that, as all these moving parts make it close to impossible to tell one congruent story, and ultimately the film plays as a missed opportunity to what could have been an incredibly entertaining show. Nonetheless the film’s climax does offer intense thrills and high drama, and ultimately leaves it’s mark as a decent film that should not go unnoticed.