The “Belly” of this particular beast is a cacophonous, visually aggressive inner-city saga of crime and mayhem. The film is never boring — there’s no question that filmmaker Hype Williams has the fancy moves — but the rhythmic, stylistic repetition becomes tedious, and serves to keep the audience removed from the story. Expect no showy B.O. numbers for this cinematic menace, which will quickly hightail it from theaters and might score a few points in ancillaries, where sampling will be quite enough to appreciate the picture.
Set in summer 1999 and leading up to the eve of the new millennium, the film centers on Tommy (DMX) and Sincere (Nas), two young black men who have embraced a violent, outlaw lifestyle. Power, drugs and money have taken them from a poor Queens neighborhood to upscale addresses. But their gunslinger status makes them constant targets for other gangbangers and the feds.
“Belly” isn’t much different in theme from countless Warner Bros. gangster melodramas of the 1930s or 1970s blaxploitation pictures. In this formula, crime equals death, and education and contrition are the bad man’s only chances for redemption. It’s a simple narrative arc with a clean, Biblical quality that seemingly can’t fail to satisfy on the most rudimentary level. But in the case of “Belly,” deciphering even the bare-bones plot is a daunting task, because relationships and allegiances are handled so cavalierly, one is hard-pressed to distinguish the cops from the hoods.
The classic rise-and-fall structure takes the duo from high-profile ghetto status to control of the drug trade in distant Omaha, Neb. Their services are much sought after to knock over clubs and as hit men for turf interlopers. But their luck is running out. After taking out a Jamaican drug czar, they return to find rivals and the cops circling.
Sincere, who’s been reading Elijah Mohammed, tries to convince his wife, Tionne (Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins), that they should pack up everything and move to Africa. Tommy, momentarily letting his guard down, is nabbed by the DEA and, in prison, is given an offer he can’t refuse. He’s to get close to a charismatic minister and kill him before he can give an inspirational message Dec. 31, 1999, in Times Square. The reason behind the assassination of the minister is one of many unfathomable twists that contribute to the picture’s unsatisfactory conclusion.
Hubris definitely gets in the way of this movie. Williams, a much-touted rap video director, goes to great lengths to jettison explanatory scenes in favor of razzle-dazzle imagery, rapid-fire cutting, a high-decibel soundtrack and florid camera movements. The result is mesmerizing, but pic’s stylistic flash doesn’t convey the blinding truth that would make dialogue, structure and story logic unnecessary.
The performances of Nas and DMX have a visceral power and sense of truth that transcend the minimal support of the script. They have presence, no doubt developed from their work as performance artists, and the director uses them for their iconographic rather than thespian qualities. Watkins and Taral Hicks, as Tommy’s hard-nosed girlfriend, provide strong supporting perfs along with a handful of wise guys played by rappers Power, Method Man and Louie Rankin.