A vanity project on at least two levels, Nick Cannon’s “King of the Dancehall” sees the actor and TV host serve as star, director, screenwriter, producer, and executive producer — which is certainly one way to make sure the extensive footage he’s shot of himself dancing shirtless in slow-motion, his image projected in triplicate across the screen, makes it past final cut. As an auteur, Cannon quickly ends up way over his head, unable to wrangle a film that careens off in a dozen directions at once. Yet the director makes two smart decisions that help turn what could have easily been an unwatchable mess into a hysterical, feverish, incredibly watchable one.
The first is his choice to shoot the film on location in Jamaica, deep in the country’s dancehall scene. Though the music itself is not entirely mainstream in the U.S., Stateside audiences will surely recognize some of the countless dancehall beats and dance moves that American pop stars have been ripping off for years. Yet no amount of VMA twerking can compare to the wild, hypersexualized abandon of the real deal, and Cannon captures some of its flavor here.
The second wise move is the decision to cast Jamaican first-time actress Kimberly Patterson, previously employed as a makeup artist on film shoots, as his romantic lead. It’s not hard to guess what initially caught Cannon’s eye — the actress is traffic-haltingly beautiful — but luckily for us, she also turns out to be a natural, possessing a cool ease on camera and an immediate magnetism that will hopefully see her land future roles with dialogue that’s actually worth speaking.
Clearly inspired by the way “The Harder They Come” used genre film conventions to introduce much of America to reggae, “King of the Dancehall” interweaves documentary-style footage of the island’s native music scene with a quarter-baked crime plot, and Cannon plops himself right in the middle of both. Here he plays Tarzan, a Brooklyn drug dealer fresh out of prison, whose mother (Whoopi Goldberg) is ill and unable to pay her medical bills. Thinking of ways to raise cash, Tarzan decides to take his $5,000 nest egg and head to Kingston, where he hopes to strike up a new hustle exporting the island’s finest weed back to the heart of Babylon.
In Jamaica, he hooks up with his cousin, Allestar, aka All Star Toasta, aka Toasta (Busta Rhymes), an ebullient selector whose long-suffering wife just threw him out of the house. Toasta introduces Tarzan to the island’s nightclub scene, its vast network of fearsome gangsters, and his wife’s virginal sister Maya (Patterson), whose suspicious bishop father (Lou Gossett Jr.) keeps her under a watchful eye.
As a protagonist, Tarzan’s primary characteristics are incredible luck and unbelievable stupidity. Thanks to the first, he somehow piques the interest of Maya — who, despite all her virtuousness, is a dancehall queen of some renown. Due to the latter, he makes an immediate enemy of Donovan “Dada” Davidson (Collie “Collie Buddz” Harper), a vicious white-Jamaican gang boss. And yet Tarzan manages to become one of Jamaica’s most successful drug traffickers within a few weeks; within a few months, thanks to Maya’s intimate tutelage, he has also learned how to dance with the best of them.
Shot in actual Jamaican outdoor dancehall venues, the film’s nightlife scenes are clearly meant to be its highlights. The dance moves are appropriately outrageous, but it’s here that Cannon’s inexperience as a director proves most frustrating: Even though this is essentially a dance film, so many of the dance sequences are so darkly-lit and frantically edited that it’s difficult to get a good look at the action. Nonetheless, the energy is there, and it powers the film’s first half well enough.
The second half, however, sees the film go from enjoyably all-over-the-place to unintentionally hysterical. As Tarzan becomes the leader of Kingston’s hottest dance crew — to reiterate, this is supposed to be just a few months after he first started dancing — he reawakens the ire of Dada, who steals his money and has him thrown in prison. Once out, he’s seduced by Dada’s sister (Kreesha Turner) in hilarious fashion, and resolves to go straight by winning the year’s biggest dance contest. It’s here that the film loses its already loose grip on reality, veering off into a few scenes of deep, deep nonsense that simply must be seen to be believed.
As Tarzan, Cannon makes sure to paint as glamorous and shirtless a picture of himself as possible, and his constant voiceover narration produces several laugh-out-loud moments. (Over a montage of jiggling butts, he seriously intones, “asses were everywhere.”) But he does deserve credit for assembling a largely Jamaican cast — as well as splicing in interstitial interviews with Beenie Man, whose song gives the film its title — their dialogue presented with subtitles. Hilariously, it’s the Brooklyn-born Busta Rhymes whose patois requires the most explication. The son of Jamaican parents, Busta appears to be stifling a giggle for most of his scenes, clearly having the time of his life laying the accent on in double-thick coats, and trying to see how many “bloodclots” he can cram into a single sentence. Viewers would be advised to approach this film with the same sort of attitude.