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Review: No real story behind flashy 'Belly'

Web posted on:
Tuesday, November 17, 1998 2:32:57 PM EST

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- When I sat down to see the new gangsta picture "Belly," I didn't know a thing about director Hype Williams, except that, with that name, he's born to work in the movie industry. Two minutes into the film, though, I knew everything that I'd be finding out about him. Hype is quite obviously a rap video director. Or, more precisely, he's quite an obvious director, rap video variety.

More than any other movie I've seen this year (and, believe me, this is saying something), "Belly" is one great big music video. From the second it starts until the second it ends, you get a glistening but incoherent series of luxury cars, Bob Marley joints, wads of cash, handguns, and scantily-clad women of engagingly low moral fiber.

The director and performers are so wholly obsessed with pristine surfaces, you'd think Linda Evangelista was behind the camera. As a bonus, nearly all of the characters sport either majorly chiseled biceps or (as the narrator touchingly describes one woman's ample charms) "big-ass tits." Those characters, by the way, come in three varieties -- self-confident, ridiculously self-confident, and dead.

It's a dubiously single-minded -- dare I say dumb -- undertaking by Williams, a person who has a major-league grasp of the technical aspects of film visuals but doesn't have one damn idea about storytelling.

Hip MTV-amped attitudes

Just because your characters can't comprehend anything but a pile of greenbacks and what you can pick up on Rodeo Drive when you've managed to secure that pile, it doesn't mean that it's the secret to life on earth. One woman at a nightclub jiggles her impressive butt up and down real fast until it's practically a blur, but I don't know that that qualifies as thematic scope.

The biggest problem with MTV-amped hip attitudes is that the gestures are literally all that matter. Content and reason are for those losers who have regular jobs, drive Toyotas, and weren't blessed with any seductively "big-ass" body parts. The vigorous embrace of "stuff" as opposed to content is simply a form of self-anointment when everybody in the room is dazzled by expensive, shiny objects. In four-minutes doses, okay, but drawn out to movie length it's not even funny. It's just pathetic.

You get shiny objects galore in "Hype," mostly in the form of sleek cars that crawl through the night like music-booming cheetahs. A lot of the visuals are undeniably stunning, but that's not to say that the movie is well shot.

Malik Hassan Sayeed is the cinematographer (he did much more sensibly modulated work for Spike Lee's "He Got Game"), and the guy sure knows his lenses. There's touches of all the masters available for your perusal -- tons of Stanley Kubrick's wide-angles, the icy-blue sheen of David Cronenberg, the hyper-crisp reality of the battle sequences in "Saving Private Ryan," etc.

I'm not implying that Sayeed purposefully lifted these techniques ("Private Ryan" probably wasn't even released yet when he was filming "Belly"), but when there's nothing else of any interest going on in a film, you're forced to simply gawk at the images and wonder where you've seen them before.

Showing off masks dearth of ideas

This kind of work doesn't serve the movie so much as it serves the egos of the people who made the movie, and that's a big no-no if you're looking to accomplish anything of any real value onscreen.

You can even see it cropping up in Martin Scorsese's recent work. Take a peek at how thoroughly unmotivated most of the camera histrionics are in "Cape Fear," then take a minute to figure out why the end result is about one-twentieth as powerful as "Taxi Driver." Showing off means a lack of ideas, and "Belly," as much as anything else, is a veritable love poem to showing off.

You may have noted that I haven't mentioned the actual story yet. This is because there is no actual story, or, at least, no story that you could understand as spoken by the characters. If the phrase "Ya-know-wha-I'm-sayin?" didn't exist, the movie would be 10 minutes long. Posturing, profanity, gunplay, and displays of evidently world-class sexual prowess are all you get. And they're all shot oobie-doobie groovy style.

There is one cool, intimidating performance by an actor named Louie Rankin, but his Jamaican accent is so thick and his voice so guttural, you can't understand a single word he says.

I'm not exaggerating, either. The great reggae movie, "The Harder They Come," is delivered in the same ganja-stewed patois, but the producers of that one took mercy and included subtitles. I suspect that Rankin's character (a big-time dope dealer) had a scene during which the main thrust of the "plot" is relayed, but he might as well have been singing "Louie Louie" for all the good it did me.

What I could figure out was that a couple of old buddies from Queens, Tommy and Sincere (played by DMX and Nasir Jones), have started gaining a major stronghold in the illegal drug-supply business. Tommy lives in an unlikely postmodern house that looks like a variation on the milk bar from "A Clockwork Orange." His girlfriend, Kisha (Taral Hicks), is the one with chest. In true rap tradition, Tommy is portrayed as violent and righteously angry, but Kisha is just a woman, so she's a stupid, self-centered, money-spending bitch.

Good lookin' with not much cookin'

This vileness is supposedly counteracted by Sincere's home life. He's got a nice, hardwood crib, with a baby and a well-meaning wife named Tionne (Tionne "T-Boz" Watkins, from the group TLC). I was quite surprised when Tionne and Sincere suddenly had a howler of a simplistic argument about the dead-end path that his life is taking. Sincere even muses to Tommy about -- deep thought warning -- the meaning of life.

Then it's right back to the weed, the wheels, the Uzis, and the ladies. It's like Williams periodically squirts on "content" as a condiment to hide the emptiness of the hot dog movie he's cooked up.

This all leads to an ill-fated drug ring in Omaha, Nebraska (don't ask me), and a sudden subplot that deals with the assassination of a Nation of Islam leader. It's all good lookin' with not much cookin', and takes way too long to finish. Ya-know-wha-I'm-sayin'?

Ultimately, "Belly" isn't much more racy than the music videos it springs from, except that there are moments of nudity. Tons of profanity and quite a bit of violence, but not as much as much blood as it promises. I think Sincere should collaborate with "Furious" from "Boyz N the Hood" and "Jesus" from "He Got Game" on a subtle name symposium. Rated R. 110 minutes.

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