"Friday" franchise appears in a serious state of decline with latest, "Friday After Next," which long overstays its welcome. Although writer-star-producer Ice Cube wisely returns to original's Crenshaw setting, this is surely one of the most frantic, virulent and foul-natured Christmas season pic ever delivered by a Hollywood studio.

“Friday” franchise appears in a serious state of decline with latest, “Friday After Next,” which long overstays its welcome. Although writer-star-producer Ice Cube wisely returns to original’s Crenshaw setting after a dubious detour to the suburbs in “Next Friday,” this is surely one of the most frantic, virulent and foul-natured Christmas season pic ever delivered by a Hollywood studio. Because the third try keeps most of the series’ familiar elements — especially Ice Cube’s put-upon character Craig and his wacky family — it is sure to pull in the loyal followers, but unlikely to surpass previous pic’s $57 million domestic theatrical take. Home vid season, though, will bring some cheer.

Everything about pic’s humbug spirit is in the five-minute opener, where a thief dressed as Santa (Rickey Smiley) plagues the ‘hood, and specifically, the Crenshaw apartment shared by Craig and goofy cousin Day-Day (Mike Epps), intro’d in “Next Friday.” Day-Day is in such a dream state late at night that he apparently doesn’t hear the loud fight between the faux-Santa and Craig, who fails to stop the crook from stealing most of their presents and their rent money.

The pair, as per usual, can’t catch a break, so that when LAPD cops show up to take a report, they nearly nail the guys on possession of a marijuana plant, while spiky apartment manager Ms. Pearly (BeBe Drake) threatens eviction if the rent isn’t coughed up soon. Ms. Pearly’s extremely buffed son Damon (Terry Crews), just out of prison, underlines the threat to Craig and Day-Day with a near-lethal bear hug.

With help from Craig’s dad Mr. Jones (John Witherspoon), who owns and operates Bros. Bar-B-Q in a strip mall with rambunctious Uncle Elroy (Don “DC” Curry), Craig and Day-Day quickly land jobs as the mall’s rent-a-cops, armed only with whistles. Day-Day is afflicted with delusions of Rambo-like grandeur, and Craig plays his usual level-headed self while trying to keep an eye out for the bad Santa. He gets distracted, though, by pretty Donna (K.D. Aubert), who works with pint-sized pimp daddy Money Mike (Katt Williams) at a boutique he runs in the mall called — all too appropriately — Pimps N’ Ho’s.

Franchise’s habit of marrying excessive farce, usually playing off the loudest possible inner city stereotypes, with improvised dialogue is pushed this time past the breaking point, and it appears that tyro helmer and music vid vet Marcus Raboy doesn’t know how to say no to his stars’ whims for trying to get laughs. Unlike their much more focused interplay in “All About the Benjamins,” Ice Cube and Epps don’t find a groove together here.

This proves all too obvious in the mall sequence, which is over-extended by several minutes’ worth of mindless chases, bonks over the head and mirthless antics involving Ice Cube, Epps and their elderly counterparts, Witherspoon and Curry. A further bit with Jewish shop owner Moly (Maz Jobrani) dallies dangerously close to an anti-Semitic cartoon.

Pic becomes a chain of lost farcical opportunities, capped by a dull party sequence back at Craig’s and Day-Day’s place, a badly cut and staged bathroom bit with Money Mike and Damon (who actually prefers guys), and an encounter with Ms. Pearly that should have been several powers funnier than it actually is.

By the time Craig and Day-Day pursue Santa one last time through the streets and several backyards, “Friday After Next” already feels long past its expiration date — remarkable, given that final credits roll at the 78-minute mark.

Project does provide a sizable stage for performers Witherspoon, Curry and, especially, Williams, to strut and show off. Williams, with his revved-up motor mouth and intensive timing, suggests the kind of overpowering comic presence that Chris Tucker showed off in “Friday.” Ice Cube, true to form, stays gruffly quiet, and comes off the better for it.

Production package is notably second-rate, but the few specific locales are given maximum coverage by lenser Glen McPherson.

Friday After Next

Production

A New Line Cinema release of a New Line Cinema and Cube Vision Prods. presentation of a Cube Vision production. Produced by Ice Cube, Mat Alvarez. Executive producers, Toby Emmerich, Matt Moore, Douglas Curtis. Directed by Marcus Raboy. Screenplay, Ice Cube, based on characters created by Ice Cube, DJ Pooh.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Glen McPherson; editor, Suzanne Hines; music, John Murphy; music supervisor, Spring Aspers; production designer, Amy B. Ancona; art director, Colin de Rouin ; set designers, Chad S. Frey, William H. Taliaferro; set decorator, Melissa M. Levander; costume designer, Dana Campbell; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Walter Anderson; sound designer, Kenneth L. Johnson; supervising sound editor, Mark Stoeckinger; special effects coordinator, Dave Kelsey; associate producer, Ronn Riser-Muhammad ; assistant director, Donald L. Sparks; second unit camera, Julian Chojnacki ; casting, Matthew Barry, Nancy Green-Keyes. Reviewed at New Line Cinema screening room, L.A., Nov. 12, 2002. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 82 MIN.

With

Craig - Ice Cube Day-Day - Mike Epps Mr. Jones - John Witherspoon Uncle Elroy - Don "DC" Curry Mrs. Jones - Anna Maria Horsford Pinky - Clifton Powell Ms. Pearly - BeBe Drake Donna - K.D. Aubert Cookie - Sommore Santa Claus - Rickey Smiley Officer Hole - Joel McKinnon Miller Officer Dix - Reggie Gaskins Damon - Terry Crews Sister Sarah - Starletta Dupois Money Mike - Katt Williams Moly - Maz Jobrani
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