Also with: Jean Pace, Brigid Coulter.
Jamaa Fanaka’s indie “Street Wars” is a provocative crime pic with a twist, an offbeat gangster drama that also provides commentary on the genre. In the wake of L.A.’s recent civil unrest, film’s timely concerns, original structure and bold visual conception might make it popular among young black auds. But lack of traditional narrative and moral weight might restrict crossover appeal.
Tale’s tone and message are established in the pre-credits sequence, set on a sailboat, in what L.A. drug lord Frank (Bryan O’Dell) instructs his younger brother Sugarpop (Alan Joseph Howe), a “top gun” aviation cadet at the elitist Exeter Military Academy. There’s no right and wrong, Frank says, just power, but there is no power without money. Frank has made the money–now he expects Sugarpop to gain legitimacy and respect.
Story in the first half is rather routine. An attempt on Frank’s life sets off a citywide drug war, with Frank’s private army, an African nationalist version of Knights of the Round Table, attacking one rival crack house after another. When Frank is viciously assassinated in a French restaurant, Sugarpop avenges his death and takes charge of the operation, vowing to make it legit in two years. Trained in ultra-light aircraft, Sugarpop turns his men into a lethal ghetto air force; the media describes them as aerial mobsters.
“Street Wars” is an entertaining effort offering a tight look at one segment of society: the drug dealers. Healthy humor is targeted at their excessively glamorous lifestyle, expensive limousines, haute couture, fancy restaurants, beautiful women — there is one hilariously staged sex scene. Pic takes a satirical view of its vividly drawn, oddball characters.
However, no element, black or white, remains unscathed by Fanaka’s criticism. The police chief, a caricature who labels the gangsters a bunch of animals and lowlifes, proves unable to control the violence. Cliche-spouting TV news reporters embellish their stories to increase ratings. Community residents are depicted as selfish and indifferent. A black woman doesn’t care about crack so long as it is not next door.
Unlike Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” in which the very values of mainstream society are challenged, Fanaka accepts dominant white culture–he just wants a more active share of it. Some viewers might find pic’s message–that the only way to assume power and respect is with money, and that the end justifies the means–controversial. Sugarpop plans to go legit, but in the meantime he has no qualms about using illegitimate means to maximize his profits.
Fanaka’s militant pic goes one step beyond Spike Lee and John Singleton, who have chronicled the frustration and anger faced by black ghettos’ young men. Here, rage is channeled into action; Fanaka’s young men are not morally confused–they know what needs to be done.
Violence is excessive and, when shot in slow-motion, gratuitous. And because most shoot-outs erupt randomly and suddenly — without much context — violence registers no meaning.
But fanciful pic is highly stylized and surprisingly upbeat. Frank’s grand funeral is celebrated with a disco musical number, performed at his coffin. Decidedly unsentimental and nonjudgmental, “Street Wars” is not a narrative in which viewers are asked to sympathize with the characters. Defying easy categorization, modernist pic switches gears–from family melodrama to sex farce to crime-gangster–swiftly and frequently.
Endowed with stunning looks and great screen presence, Howe plays the lead without much depth. Rest of cast is uneven but, fortunately pic’s impact doesn’t depend on acting. Visuals are strong: John Demps’ lensing is imaginative, the sets and costumes deliberately ostentatious.