Review: ‘MVP’

Story of an idealistic lawyer's reluctant defense of a gangbanger, "MVP" is a hackneyed drama with half-realized characters and an unfocused script that only weakly details its view of a Detroit divided between rich and poor blacks. Beyond a solid run at African American fests, distrib interest will be mild.

Story of an idealistic lawyer’s reluctant defense of a gangbanger, “MVP” is a hackneyed drama with half-realized characters and an unfocused script that only weakly details its view of a Detroit divided between rich and poor blacks. Beyond a solid run at African American fests, distrib interest will be mild.

Tony Smalls (Wood Harris) is a lawyer who describes himself as a man driven to make a difference. He’s chided by his rich uncle (Obba Babatunde) for running his practice more like a social agency than a business, and is in the midst of raising money with wife Kim (Melle Powers) for the establishment of a center to help the poor.

When a robbery/murder looks like the work of the notorious Detroit gang known as MVP, gang leader Bigboy (Christian Mathis) is quickly pegged for the crime. Tony’s sister Nia (N’Bushe Wright) pleads with him to defend Bigboy, and Tony, despite repeated protestations, finally consents.Tony’s initial reluctance turns to enthusiasm in his defense of the hood as he assumes Nia’s certainty of Bigboy’s innocence. But it’s a crucially unbelievable story shift; Tony’s and Kim’s social project seems to be the couple’s top priority, and it’s not convincing that they would be so willing to drop everything to suit his sister’s desires. Bigboy’s claims of innocence ring phony, and Tony is faced with enough obstacles to make the prospect of defending the thug extremely daunting. Bigboy’s original lawyer is mysteriously killed, and he refuses a plea- bargained 10-20-year sentence offered by wily prosecutor Charles Blocker (Roger Guenveur Smith).

A set of conspiratorial elements are hinted at but left unexplored, though Charles’ warnings to Tony about impending threats against him if he keeps defending the gangster turn out to be legit.

Tyro helmer Harry Davis appears to be playing catch-up with Greg Pak’s scattershot script, and he’s unable to convincingly stage a take on black life in Detroit that includes the wealthy in business suits at one end of town and poor victims and victimizers in the ghetto at the other.

Unlike his engrossing work in “The Wire,” Harris’ perf is frustratingly contained. Wright has a monopoly on most of the big emotional moments, and Mathis creates a hulking presence that spells trouble. The always interesting Smith is given free rein to suggest an amoral sort with hidden agendas, while Babatunde is restricted to dull, finger-pointing monologues.

Davis’ taste for wide angles and David Philips’ clean lensing dominate a slick production package, though a slightly rougher look might have better served this problematic big-city saga.

MVP

Production

An Extra Films production. Produced by Karin Chien, George N'Namdi. Executive producers, Kevin Edwards, Charles Oakley. Directed by Harry Davis. Screenplay, Greg Pak, based on his story.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, B&W), David Philips; editor, Abraham Lim; music, Will Pitts; music supervisor, James T. Oakar; production designer, Dan Oullette; art director, Chris Carothers; costume designer, Babs Anderson; sound, John Versical; assistant director, Curtis A. Smith Jr.; casting, James Calleri, Julie Smith. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (American Spectrum), Jan. 22, 2004. Running time: 89 MIN.

With

Tony Smalls - Wood Harris Nia - N'Bushe Wright Charles Blocker - Roger Guenveur Smith Dr. Howard Perkins - Obba Babatunde Raymond Kelly - Kevin Jackson Kim - Melle Powers Bigboy - Christian Mathis

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