"Waist Deep" packs energy and style into its tale of an ex-con forced back into a life of crime to rescue his kidnapped son. Yet the kinetic direction and occasional sly humor can't disguise the tale's banal brutality. Strong cast led by Tyrese Gibson will stir interest among urban auds, but "Deep's" B.O. penetration looks pretty shallow.

Doing very little to dispel Los Angeles’ reputation as a hotbed of gangland vendettas, voluptuous streetwalkers and some of the worst traffic on the planet, “Waist Deep” packs considerable energy and style into its tale of an ex-con forced back into a life of crime to rescue his kidnapped son. Yet the kinetic direction and occasional sly humor can’t disguise the tale’s banal brutality or pump much excitement into its routinized pileup of shoot-outs and car chases. Strong cast led by Tyrese Gibson will stir interest among urban auds, but “Deep’s” B.O. penetration looks pretty shallow.

Singer-model Gibson, who won raves for his performance as an irresponsible single dad in John Singleton’s “Baby Boy” (2001), here embodies a more mature variation on the same role — a recent parolee named O2 (short for Oxygen) who, having spent six years in prison, is trying to turn over a new leaf.

Yet where “Baby Boy” set out to map the genome of a specific kind of African-American male, “Waist Deep” has little on its brain beyond providing 97 minutes of visceral, propulsive and socially irresponsible entertainment. For all helmer Vondie Curtis Hall’s aspirations to grittiness, his script (co-written by Darin Scott) is mired in a violent fantasy L.A. where the stereotypes fly almost as fast as the bullets.

In an explosive and impressively economical opening, O2 is carjacked by a thug who drives off with his boy, Junior (played by the director’s son, H. Hunter Hall), still in the backseat. Using the weapon issued him at his new job as a security guard, O2 initiates a bloody gunfight that quickly wipes out his hopes of going straight, while establishing the revved-up editing and handheld camerawork that constitute pic’s jangly aesthetic.

O2 soon finds an unlikely ally in Coco (the scintillating Meagan Good), a gorgeous prostitute with whom he locked eyes shortly before the carjacking. She agrees to help him track down Junior, who is being held captive by Meat (rap artist the Game, sporting a prosthetic gouged-out eye), a crime boss so fearsome he’s introduced cutting off a lackey’s hand.

Meat, who shares a bitter history with O2, demands $100,000 ransom for Junior’s safe return. In response, O2 and Coco turn renegade and set off on a wild crime spree to acquire the money, deliberately stirring up a war between Meat’s syndicate and Coco’s pimp in the process.

Comparisons to “Bonnie and Clyde” are unmistakable and deliberately suggested by the film, though the duo’s strategy of cleverly switching disguises from one robbery to the next, as well as the pic’s utter lack of moral gravity, are more reminiscent of “Fun With Dick and Jane.”

“Waist Deep” is at its most engaging when it allows a breezy lightness of tone to slip into the otherwise grim proceedings. Good, the strikingly assured young actress from “Brick” and “Roll Bounce,” steals one scene after another as the hilariously resourceful Coco — causing a diverting ruckus in a bank one moment, verbally seducing a suspicious police officer the next.

But the pic sacrifices its sense of humor for a series of predictably written, staged and shot action set pieces, beginning with the inevitable confrontation between O2 and Meat and ending with a long and extremely loud high-speed car chase.

Script attempts a topical spin by setting the action within the parameters of an all-day anticrime rally on the streets of L.A., with a number of pointed references to real-life Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. It’s never clear, however, whether helmer Hall intends the rally to function as rebuke or ironic counterpoint to the action. In any event, it would take a smarter film than this to be able to critique gang violence and at the same time glorify it so relentlessly.

Gibson’s smoldering, subdued performance conveys both the violent desperation and the essential decency of a father figure having his arm twisted, while Larenz Tate creates a quietly memorable figure as O2′s ironically named gangbanger cousin, Lucky. Young Hall, however, could have used a mite more direction as the terrorized tot.

Shane Hurlbut’s widescreen cinematography, with its occasionally ripe, oversaturated colors, expertly captures the sweat and sizzle of an L.A. afternoon. Soundtrack’s abundant hip-hop riffs occasionally double as catchy intro music for the characters, ably complementing Terence Blanchard’s pulsing score.

Waist Deep

Production

A Rogue Pictures release of a Rogue Pictures and Intrepid Pictures presentation of a Radar Pictures and RSVP Prods. production. Produced by Preston Holmes. Executive producers, Ted Field, Trevor Macy, Marc D. Evans, Russell Simmons, Stan Lathan, Amy Kaufman, A. Demetrius Brown. Directed by Vondie Curtis Hall. Screenplay, Hall, Darin Scott, based on a story by Michael Mahern.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor prints, widescreen), Shane Hurlbut; editor, Terilyn A. Shropshire; music, Terence Blanchard; music supervisor, Jabari Ali; production designer, Warren A. Young; art director, Yoojung Han; set decorator, Cheryle A. Grace; costume designer, Marie France; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), David Parker; supervising sound editors, Steven D. Williams, Eric A. Norris; stunt coordinator, Julius LeFlore; visual effects supervisor, Evan Jacobs; assistant director, Noga Isackson; casting, Robi Reed. Reviewed at ArcLight Cinemas, Los Angeles, June 20, 2006. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 97 MIN.

With

O2 - Tyrese Gibson Coco - Meagan Good Lucky - Larenz Tate Junior - H. Hunter Hall Fencing House Lady - Kimora Lee Simmons Meat - The Game

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