During Snoop’s recent guest appearance on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart predictably asked him about his new film’s title, Bones. You know, did it refer to the same kind of “bones” that Stewart, putting his fingers to his lips in a smoking gesture, had in mind? Sporting a pair of crazy diamond-rimmed glasses and a sample from his recently launched clothing line, Snoop was good-natured as always, leaning way back in the red sofa, his long skinny legs splayed out in front of him. He smiled quietly and gave the appropriate answer: the movie is named after Jimmy Bones, Snoop’s character, who spends most of his time on screen as a ghost, come back to avenge his brutal murder by associates and supposed friends. Jimmy also shows up in flashbacks to 1979, when he’s a neighborhood “patron,” dressed up in a pimp suit, sauntering along the sidewalk as folks young and old wave hello and grasp his hand in gratitude.
The role suits Snoop Dogg, legendarily amiable and good to his people. Most consumers know Snoop for his laid-back rap style, his lucrative partnership with mentor Dr. Dre, or perhaps the headlines that have kept him in the public eye over the years, including the uproar over the cover art for his 1993 album Doggy Style, or the congressional hearings on “rap music” that singled out Snoop’s “explicit” lyrics. Maybe they recall his arrest and trial for murder in 1994, his defection from Suge Knight’s Death Row for Master P’s No Limit, and most recently, his 18 October bust for marijuana possession while on his Puff, Puff, Pass Tour bus. But Snoop, nee Calvin Broadus, has also been working an alternative career, with a series of straight-to-video productions, with titles like Urban Menace, The Wrecking Crew, and Hot Boyz, as well as Murder Was the Case, the 1994 long-form video directed by Dr. Dre, in which Snoop plays a banger who pays dearly for his actions. And oh yes, he’s developing a porn video business, apparently drawing from his experience at Death Row (see, for instance, the video release, Death Row Uncut).
Bones marks Snoop’s initial move into mainstream stardom, following supporting roles earlier this year in two high-profile pictures, John Singleton’s Baby Boy and Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day; later this year, Snoop has yet another starring role, alongside Dre, in D.J. Pooh’s The Wash. All this activity suggests that Snoop, or someone, has a plan concerning his Hollywood career; obviously, he’s a charismatic guy, and honestly, I believe him when he says that he was waiting for the “right” role for his first starring vehicle.
Directed by Ernest Dickerson and written by Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe, Bones lifts from several scary-movie predecessors, including Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns, Tales From the Hood, The Crow, Candyman, Hellraiser, and Nightmare on Elm Street: Jimmy Bones has even been assigned his own spooky children’s rhyme, “This is the story of Jimmy Bones / Black as night and hard as stone / Gold-plated deuce like the King of Siam / Got a switchblade loose and a diamond on his hand…” All good sources—they might inspire faith that the filmmakers have a grasp of the political potentials for horror films, and indeed, the resulting film makes a rudimentary case regarding the introduction of crack into underclass urban neighborhoods, as one small component in an economic system that gives little or no thought to human costs.
Granted, this crack idea isn’t exactly new (and the case has been made more emphatically in Mario Van Peebles’ Panther, where the FBI introduced crack into black neighborhoods as part of COINTELPRO). But it’s not a bad idea for a horror movie, given its genuinely horrific effects. But the film doesn’t push this socio-political angle, instead using it as a way to heroicize Bones, in his big pimpy way. Because he refuses to sell it on his block, Bones is murdered by the usual local idiots who are looking to cash in on the next big thing. These include the usual corrupt cop, Lupovich (Michael T. Weiss, best known for his work on tv’s The Pretender), and the usual smalltime hustler, Eddie Mack (Ricky Harris, memorable in the Dogg Pound’s video, “Doggy Dogg World”), whose depravity is marked by the following stock details: 1) he wears tired ‘70s outfits, even in the present day scenes; 2) he runs his business from out of a gloomy pool hall; 3) he has a skanky white girlfriend named Snowflake (Erin Wright); and 4) he wears a hairnet in a decidedly uncool way.
However you read these characters—as self-conscious stereotypes or just badly written villains—they don’t do much to help the horror part of
Bones, already hampered by some corny effects. Though Dickerson has a famously sharp eye (in addition to once being Spike Lee’s cinematographer, from his NYU films through Do the Right Thing to Malcolm X, he also directed Juice), it’s not much in evidence here, aside from a bit of grainy, skewed-angle footage and deeply shadowed interiors, and orange-filtered fish-eye lenses for demonic point of view shots. The much less interesting visuals in Bones are low-rent-looking long-fingered shadows on the wall, the silly swirling mists, flames that are obviously licking no one, and the jet-black wolf-dog who serves as Bones’ earthly familiar, and whose red eyes make him look like a battery-powered toy.
Predictably, the story concerns those left behind after Bones’ untimely death, in particular those present at the murder scene, the shooter and those others he forces to stab Bones, so everyone has some reason to cover up the crime. On its face, this plot point seems strained, especially since one of these characters is Bones’ lady love, Pearl (played by the great Pam Grier), but considering that she’s a black woman up against a white cop, perhaps we can let it go. She has a premonition that things will go wrong that night, but Bones is a little cocky, so by the time she shows up at his office to help, well, he’s already in too deep, and she’s sucked in right after him.
Bones comes back when his old house (very stone-scary looking) when some kids come in with plans to renovate it for use as a dance club, to be called Illbient. As it happens, these entrepreneurs are the children of Bones’ old partner (and another one in that room full of guilty parties back in 1979), Jeremiah (Clifton Powell), whose own ill-gotten gains include a house in a nice neighborhood and a white wife. The kids—Patrick (Khalil Kain), Bill (Merwin Modesir), and Tia (Katharine Isabelle)—bring along their buddy, a DJ and aspiring player named Maurice (Sean Armsing), who makes the mistake of taking that big old diamond ring off the skeleton they find in the basement; not only that, he breaks off the finger to get the ring—double no-no. This greediness initiates Bones’s return, his flesh, veins, and muscles slithering onto his skeletal remains.
At last, he’s Snoop, easily the movie’s best effect. He creates havoc in Illbient on opening night, what with all those pretty kids dancing and looking to score. His vengeance takes the form of that flesh-ripping pooch, hellzapoppin fires, a gooey wall full of tortured human faces and limbs, and lots of maggots. He takes out all his aggressors, then goes after Patrick, appointed love interest for Cynthia (Bianca Lawson, last seen beating up Julia Stiles in Save the Last Dance), who happens to be Bones and Pearl’s beautiful, strangely serene-about-all-this daughter. This could be because she has a bit of her mother’s “vision” in her, and knows what’s coming, but it’s not so hard to guess all that, so maybe her special gift isn’t so special after all. She’s sharp, survives a nasty blood-doused nightmare, and knows how to get out of the house when it counts. She’s also pretty clear on what she wants, though, and that would be Patrick, on her own terms. Bones is cool, but of all the characters in Bones, Cynthia is the one who most merits a sequel. Oh, and did I mention that Pearl is now working as a storefront Miss Cleo to make ends meet? No wonder Cynthia’s feeling defiant.