Nelly, Zoe Saldana

"Snipes" reps a decent first feature effort for director/co-scenarist Richard Murray and RuffNation Films. Suspense tale of a rap-adulating Philly teen pulled into deadly record label intrigue works more as a clever -- albeit somewhat implausible -- action-mystery than as a straight-up crime meller, with enough narrative turns to maintain viewer interest.

A diverting change of pace from the usual booty calls and gangsta shoot-‘em-ups hailing from hip-hop companies’ movie divisions, “Snipes” reps a decent first feature effort for director/co-scenarist Richard Murray and RuffNation Films. Suspense tale of a rap-adulating Philly teen pulled into deadly record label intrigue works more as a clever — albeit somewhat implausible — action-mystery than as a straight-up crime meller, with enough narrative turns and cliffhanger situations to maintain viewer interest through the satisfying wrap-up. Presence of music faves Nelly and Schoolly D will help raise profile for a modest entertainment that’s marginal theatrical fare but likely to perform well in ancillary outlets.

Raised by a depressive, hard-drinking single father, Erik (Sam Jones III) sees little point in following postal worker dad’s path to tedious, conventional employment. Or in finishing high school — his serial truancy is making that an unlikely circumstance, anyhow. Far more exciting to the energetic 17-year-old is his part-time job as king “sniper” — slang for the variably legal street papering of promotional posters — at Ill Wax Records, a local hip-hop label.

Ill Wax CEO is Bobby Starr (Dean Winters), an obnoxious wheeler-dealer taking traditional white business exploitation of black musical talents into the new millennium. His prize contractee is rapper Prolifik (Nelly), whose demo has stormed to the top of national charts.

But getting an overdue full-length disc out of the increasingly difficult star is exhausting Starr’s patience. It’s already exhausted Prolifik’s production budget, with no finished product yet in sight; and it’s sorely testing the financial largess of Bobby’s loan providers, who are very much of the leg-breaking mafioso type.

Oblivious to the tensions escalating all around, Erik pilfers a key to Ill Wax’s recording studio as a favor to aspiring rapper classmate Malik (Mpho Koaho). Duo sneak in late one night, fancying themselves just a demo away from performer-producer fame. But there’s a corpse in the way, and signs of violent struggle. Soon it’s apparent that Prolifik — and his expensively unfinished album tracks — are being held for ransom by unknown assailants.

With the panicked teens pressured by kidnappers on one side and mob collectors on the other, remainder of pic is a long chase in which Erik tries to elude myriad violent pursuers. Youth’s sole significant ally is Cheryl (Zoe Saldana), Ill Wax’s beauteous marketing director, whose help belies a hidden agenda of her own.

While their resourcefulness under extreme pressure sometimes strains credulity, “Snipes” wisely eschews excess action pic hyperbole, staying true to Erik’s bewildered, immature, often brashly bratty p.o.v. More than a little dumb luck figures into his ultimate survival, and both Murray’s direction and script (co-written with Rob Wiser) offset the unlikelihoods by layering in plenty of deadpan, absurd humor. Result is not unlike a downsized variation on such numchucks-caught-in-crossfire thrillers as “True Romance,” complete with a few too many in-joke movie references.

Moderately scaled production is unremarkable but competent in stylistic terms, with good use of Philadelphia locations, sharp casting and the requisite marketable hip-hop soundtrack adding up to a fun genre package.

Snipes

Production

An In-Motion presentation of a RuffNation production. Produced by Rich Murray, Chris Schwartz. Executive producer, Schwartz. Directed by Rich Murray. Screenplay, Rob Wiser, Murray.

Crew

Camera (color), Alex Buono; editor, Seth Anderson; music supervisor, Chris Schwartz; production designer, Dave Barnes; costumes, Fontella Boone; sound, Aaron Sadler; assistant director, Roger M. Bobb; casting, Adrienne Stern. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Planet Africa), Sept. 12, 2001. Running time: 113 MIN.

With

Sam Jones III, Zoe Saldana, Nelly, Dean Winters, Rashaan Nall, Schoolly D, Joel Garland, Mpho Koaho, Victor Togunde, Carlo Alban, Rich Heidelberg, Frank Vincent, Charli Baltimore, Johnnie Hobbs Jr.
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