“Dutch” is dreadful. It’s a shambling, rambling recycling of clichés and conventions from ’70s Blaxploitation fare mixed with stilted murder-trial melodrama and half-baked morsels of sociopolitical topicality. But, really, to describe this rancid slice of ineptitude that way is to risk making it sound a lot more interesting than it is. Written and directed by Preston A. Whitmore II (“This Christmas”), who obviously went about both tasks with all the zeal of someone paying off a debt, the movie progresses in bumpy fits and starts, with a time-tripping, flashback-within-flashback structure that does little to energize, and much to confuse, its simplistic plot.
The protagonist is introduced as Bernard James (JJ Batteast), a Black youngster who proves his loyalty to his white Italian boss at a pizzeria by fatally shooting a would-be robber. This greatly impresses a mob boss uncreatively christened Fat Tony (Robert Costanzo), who just happened to be hiding a stash of his ill-gotten gain in the pizzeria safe. In fact, he’s so impressed that he wastes little time asking what might seem to be obvious questions — like, oh, I don’t know, why was the kid packing heat in the first place — and almost immediately hires Bernard James for a low-level job in his outfit. The only catch: Fat Tony insists on renaming the youngster Dutch, a moniker the new employee readily accepts.
Cue the “20 Years Later” title card, and we find Dutch has grown up to be a charismatic New Jersey drug lord (played by Lance Gross) who manages to keep his cool during the most stressful of circumstances. We first see him as a grownup trying to sweet-talk Michelle (Natasha Marc), a beautiful defense attorney who helpfully reveals her chosen profession and the extent of her steeliness by responding thusly to his initial overtures: “I’m a criminal defense attorney, Mr. James. Very little scares me.”
She actually does appear more intrigued than frightened when Dutch says he requires her services not because of some small-potatoes drug case, but because he’s been charged with facilitating the bombing of a Newark police station that caused the deaths of 27 cops. You might expect that the trial of anyone accused of such an outrageous crime would become a frenzied media circus attracting huge crowds of reporters and curiosity seekers. As it turns out, however, the courtroom remains conspicuously underpopulated through the movie (truth to tell, there were more people around me last time I showed up for traffic court) — one of many glaring indications that “Dutch” was produced on a budget that required the pinching of pennies and the cutting of corners.
The narrative skips back and forth between singularly dull testimonies and cross-examinations, during which crooked D.A. Anthony Jacobs (James Hyde) does everything but leave a trail of slime of the floor to indicate his sleaziness, and interconnected flashbacks that trace Dutch’s rise from boosting cars to masterminding mob hits to seizing the business of a rival drug dealer. Naturally, Dutch makes enemies along the way — and, just as naturally, maintains close ties with members of a crew that, unfortunately, isn’t without at least one traitor in its midst.
There are heaping helpings of bloody carnage, fusillades of F-bombs and racial epithets, long stretches of exposition-heavy dialogue, and a whole bunch of underwhelming lead and supporting performances, none of which rises above the level of a good try. Everything leads to a climatic shootout that is as implausible as it is lethargic, and the movie ends with the door left wide open for what reportedly are two planned sequels. No, really.
Perhaps if there is at least one sequel, we’ll find out whether Dutch really did have a hand in the police station bombing. Not that we really need to know, you understand. But, then again, we didn’t need “Dutch” in the first place.