Ice Cube continues his evolution from hard-core rapper to multihyphenate filmmaker with “The Players Club,” a messy but lively B-movie that recalls the more spirited comedic dramas of the ’70s blaxploitation era. While pic has limited crossover appeal, it looms as a mid-range performer in urban markets, with respectable ancillary action down the line.
Making his feature directorial debut from his own screenplay, Ice Cube focuses on Diana (LisaRaye), a lovely African-American single mother who dreams of becoming a broadcast journalist. To pay for her college tuition, she lands a job as a stripper at the Players Club, a rowdy joint operated by a grandiloquent hustler named Dollar Bill (Bernie Mac). Presumably, such employment is far less humiliating than dealing with her college’s student-loan office.
Time and again, the movie emphasizes that, even though she doffs her clothes and performs the occasional table dance, Diana is most assuredly not a prostitute. (Or, as they say at the Players Club, she isn’t a “ho.”) But Ronnie (Chrystale Wilson), one of her more flamboyant co-workers, is not so fastidious about making a quick buck. And when Ebony (Monica Calhoun), Diana’s naive young cousin, also gets a job at the club, Ronnie tries to tempt the fresh-faced innocent into joining her for lucrative after-hours activities. Not surprisingly, this leads to trouble.
For Ice Cube, “The Players Club” is the latest addition to a resume that already includes numerous acting gigs, exec producing (“Dangerous Ground,” in which he also starred) and co-screenwriting (“Friday”). Here, he has cobbled together an episodic and unevenly paced comedic drama that makes up in vigor what it lacks in polish. Pic lacks a consistent tone, running the gamut from broad comedy to cautionary drama, with a few jarring transitions along the way. But the seedy milieu of the strip club is convincingly evoked, and the performances are persuasive enough to paper over many of the dramatic shortcomings.
In addition to the persuasively feisty LisaRaye and the amusingly devious Bernie Mac, the first-rate cast includes Jamie Foxx as Blue, a club disc jockey who falls for Diana, and Dick Anthony Williams as Mr. Armstrong, Diana’s disapproving father. In the movie’s funniest sequence, Mr. Armstrong takes Blue out into the back yard when the DJ drops by to take Diana on a date. Once outside, Mr. Armstrong underscores his concern for his daughter’s welfare by firing off a few rounds in target practice. Blue, it should be noted, gets the message.
As a supporting player, Ice Cube is competent but oddly bland as Reggie, a sullen club customer who inadvertently triggers the pic’s melodramatic climax. A.J. Johnson has a couple of funny moments as a doorman who spends most of his time helping the club owner avoid loan sharks.
Malik Sayeed’s solid color lensing is pic’s outstanding tech value. Music supervisor Frank Fitzpatrick has made some canny selections for the soundtrack, guaranteeing some impressive CD sales.