"Caught Up" occupies classic film noir terrain, with a wicked comic twist and just a sliver of social commentary. An engrossing, skillful yarn that takes its protag on a twisted path of murder, deceit, treachery and passion, pic is nonetheless apt to get lost in the marketplace as just another Afrocentric thriller.

“Caught Up” occupies classic film noir terrain, with a wicked comic twist and just a sliver of social commentary. An engrossing, skillful yarn that takes its protag on a twisted path of murder, deceit, treachery and passion, pic is nonetheless apt to get lost in the marketplace as just another Afrocentric thriller. But if it can hold its target audience, the film has good crossover prospects that could spell midrange success and strong subsequent play on pay cable and videotape.

Pic’s convoluted structure of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks is an obvious homage to bygone noirs. Daryl Allen (Bokeem Woodbine), who provides de rigueur voiceover narration, is back on the street after serving time on drug charges. The experience has sobered him, and he’s on the path to opening a nightclub.

As fate would have it, an old druggie buddy hears about his friend’s plans and offers to provide the cash shortfall for the venture. Daryl drives him to his bank, not realizing his friend’s withdrawal will be made at the end of a gun or that the ensuing chase will result in his friend’s death and five years of hard time for him.

The story resumes five years later. Daryl’s mother has died, his girlfriend (Cynda Williams), with whom he has a son, has married, and Daryl can’t find a job. Fate, again, plays a crucial role when he meets Vanessa (Williams again), a psychic with a striking resemblance to his former girlfriend. The couple are thrust together when a crazed gunman opens fire on them in an underground parking lot.

The encounter seriously sidetracks the young man’s plans to get his life back on track. The good news is that Vanessa’s connections get him a job as a limo driver; the bad news is that the clientele he’s ferrying is involved in all manner of shady enterprises. The job is, still, the least of his problems. Vanessa tells Daryl she suspects Ahmad (Basil Wallace), a jilted lover, of hiring the hit man who continues to make attempts on their lives.

Of course, nothing is quite so neat. Ahmad’s actions, it turns out, are motivated not by unrequited love but by a diamond heist he orchestrated in Miami. Vanessa was the “inside man” and blew town, disappearing with $10 million in uncut gems. Daryl is the patsy — or Fool, according to the woman’s tarot deck — in the scenario.

The feature directing debut of Darin Scott, “Caught Up” puts a new wrinkle on the genre with its contempo beat and South Central L.A. setting. Unlike other recent efforts, the translation works — the attitudes, banter and social milieu provide an apt modern backdrop for material and themes that initially hit a nerve with post-World War II America.

Woodbine eschews the hard-boiled demeanor of Robert Mitchum and his ilk in favor of a striking, guileless performance. Daryl’s magnetic personality just seems to attract trouble; despite an ability to escape tight situations, he projects a vulnerability that makes the tale highly accessible. Williams’ dual role is a staple of the genre, and she’s a delightful surprise as femme fatale and girl next door.

Memorable in the supporting cast are Wallace as the Rastafarian gangster, Joseph Lindsey as a latter-day Peter Lorre operating a limo service and Tony Todd as Daryl’s slightly malevolent parole officer.

Scott demonstrates a facile touch behind the camera, drawing the best from his cast and crew. Tech credits evoke a subtle mix of raw modernism and stylized neo-noir to give the material the appropriate nightmarish tinge.

Caught Up

Production

A Live Entertainment release of a Heller Highwater production in association with Live Film and Mediaworks. Produced by Peter Heller. Co-producer, Elaine Dysinger. Directed, written by Darin Scott.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Tom Callaway; editor, Charles Bornstein; music, Marc Bonilla; production design, Terrence Foster; costume design, Tracey White; sound (Dolby, SDDS), Ben Patrick; assistant director, Sam Hill; casting, Tony Lee. Reviewed at the Sunset Screening Room, L.A., Feb. 25, 1998. MPAA Rating. R. Running time: 97 min.

With

Daryl Allen - Bokeem Woodbine Vanessa Dietrich/Trish - Cynda Williams Billy Grimm - Joseph Lindsey Herbert/Frank Lowden - Clifton Powell Ahmad - Basil Wallace Jake - Tony Todd Roger - LL Cool J Kool Kitty Kat - Snoop Doggy Dogg Trip - Damon Saleem Jerome - Shedric Hunter Jr. Security Guard - Jeffrey Combs
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