Prison redemption offers the framework for exec producer-star Ving Rhames’ delicious evolution from primitive, sociopathic gangsta who blows people away, then sniffs the smell of death on his fingers, to purposeful citizen. Helmer David J. Burke and scripter David C. Johnson have fashioned a streetwise moral tale whose message pales before the spectacle of Rhames’ mental and physical transformations. A strong, bespectacled Jim Brown is on hand as the prison’s resident revolutionary, fighting for Rhames’ soul against sadistic prison boss Chazz Palminteri. But words speak louder than action in a stolid character-driven pic best suited to homevid markets.
While incarcerated, Animal (Rhames) is converted to the straight and narrow by reading Malcolm X, as suggested by a fellow prisoner (Brown) and by studying a historic document explaining how to break men, penned by Willy Lynch, a Machiavellian slave owner for whom lynching was named. Animal’s realization that he has been manipulated into killing his fellow men changes him radically.
Animal is released on a technicality and comes home to his son Darius (Terrence Dashon Howard of “Crash”), now a younger, smarter heir to his father’s criminal legacy.
Former friends and confederates are puzzled by Animal’s oddball, straight-arrow behavior, and try to suss out a hidden agenda. Meanwhile the son, who saw his mother shot while Animal was in lockup, begins to feel betrayed.
Rhames’ pre-conversion Animal — a hulking, brutish figure, screaming in pain or brokenly calling for his mother like a Cagney-schooled psychotic — is finely wrought. Even better realized is Animal’s slow assumption of intelligence and purpose (thankfully not accompanied by much speechifying), which is accomplished while he is still hanging out with the same old homeboys (Faizon Love, Wes Studi). These scenes involving Animal’s rehabilitation provide pic’s best, and funniest, moments, leavening the script’s somewhat perfunctory parable of the prodigal dad.
Tech credits are passable.