“Turn It Up” is a hip-hop downer that makes the high-risk high-life of contempo gangstas seem glumly routine. Patently absurd in both the details and larger aspects, the ultraserious pic is undermined by poor casting, topped by hot rappers Pras and Ja Rule in the leads. Tyro writer-director Robert Adetuyi’s actioner would normally be able to carve out a small B.O. urban niche for itself during the slow post-Labor Day stretch, but with hip-hop docu “Back Stage” (also co-starring Ja Rule, in his day job) opening in the identical mid-week timeslot, the drama may be turned down by auds altogether. Ancillary is only marginally more promising.
Opening glimpse of Fugees co-founder Pras doing what he does best — rapping against lush backup — suggests that pic will properly em-ploy singer’s talents. Alas, his character, Diamond, is soon drawn into an involved tangle of crime and music, a mix of dramatic tones that the musician-turned-thesp simply can’t handle.
Diamond is frustrated on all fronts, from his coke-sniffing recording studio producer (Chris Messina) and the strictly economizing studio owner Marshall (Eugene Clark) to his finger-wagging g.f. Kia (Tamala Jones) and highly strung but close pal Gage (Ja Rule).
With his short fuse, Gage is Diamond’s biggest headache but is nevertheless a reliable partner as the pair go on money-collecting runs for harsh, English drug lord Mr. B (Jason Statham). The errands, such as one involving a group of undifferentiated Chinese businessmen, in-variably end in an explosive volley of automatic gunfire (Diamond’s Dirty Harry-like accuracy oddly indicates that being a hitman may be a better career option than pop star) but they provide Diamond with the cash payouts to fund his debut disc.
Even as Kia chides him for “playing Batman and Robin” with the dangerous Gage, Diamond knows he needs to “go legit,” and after his mother’s sudden death and the equally sudden appearance of his long-absent father Cliff (Vondie Curtis Hall) at her funeral, son must also find a way to reacquaint himself with his piano-playing progenitor.
Indicative of the script’s sloppy storytelling is the on-the-nose intro and heart-to-hearts between Diamond and Cliff, followed by Cliff’s to-tal absence for a long stretch of running time. A pointless subplot with Kia announcing her pregnancy and Diamond wisely unsure whether they can handle a kid is unconvincingly deployed to show how much the young man needs to grow up. The thriller aspect is laid on with an uninspired, dutiful attitude, as if there were no other way to tell a story mixing drug biz and rap. Given the star pedigrees, project’s most seri-ous flub is that it keeps so far in the background.
Glimpses of actual music performances are rare and inserted as if in an afterthought, including a rave led by DJ Skribble with Pras and Ja Rule strutting their stuff, and a solo jazz piano stint by Cliff sounding like Chick Corea (with Hall’s fingers visibly not hitting the keys).
The pair of rapper stars deliver their lines as if on cue, especially when Pras is matched with Hall’s warm, credible thesping or even Jones’ strident manner. Ja Rule at least has a few scenes in which he can mouth off and look tough, but it all comes off strictly as a pose.
Pic uses Toronto locales as fairly believable substitute for Gotham, distinguished by an overwhelming amount of nighttime lensing. Scor-ing by Frank Fitzpatrick is disconcertingly closer to Arvo Part than hip-hop.