DMX is a movie star. This won’t surprise anyone who’s seen him perform—on stage, in music videos (“Get at Me Dog,” “Slippin’”), or in films (Belly, Romeo Must Die)—but for those who think that he’s just another superstar rapper trying to cross over, Exit Wounds might be news. Certainly, he’s renowned as a hiphop artist with his dead dog’s name tattooed across his back and a cinematic sensibility: His lyrics are vividly confessional and angst-filled, his post-performance backstage near-collapses (from sheer exertion and asthma) are legendary. And in 1998, he became the first hiphop artist to have two number one albums in one year (It’s Dark and Hell is Hot and Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood). His fans are devoted and they appear to be growing in number.
Now DMX has made an unusual transition, from a rapper with street cred to a mainstream movie star. The question will be, how long does he hold on to both positions—Will Smith’s status as the perennial Fresh Prince is one thing, but it’s hard to be Ice T, as he knows better than anyone else. So here comes 30-year-old DMX (born Earl Simmons), on a track to something resembling crossover celebrity, though that’s not to say that he’s going to be drawing Klumps numbers just yet. Appearing on Leno recently to promote the new flick, X was charming, completely at ease on that big fat couch. And in his role in Andrzej Bartkowiak’s new high-octane, ultraviolent action flick, DMX is the most riveting thing on the screen.
Steven Seagal, DMX, Isaiah Washington, Michael Jai White, Anthony Anderson, Jill Hennessey, Bill Duke, Tom Arnold, David Vadim
That’s saying something, because he has competition. Maybe not particularly in the form of the film’s nominal star, Steven Seagal, now into—what is it? his sixth comeback film?—playing another renegade “peace officer,” or in Seagal’s comic sidekick Tom Arnold, not exactly stretching as an eager-to-please, anger-management-challenged tv personality. But the film, even more so than Bartkowiak’s debut feature, Romeo Must Die, this film offers pretty much nonstop furious action, mostly having to do with cars (crashing, flying through the air, exploding into flames, rolling over and over, being decapitated, or whatever you call it when the top is sheared off), and guns of every persuasion. Not to mention the many co-stars in this twisty-turny bad-cops-gone-worse plot, all solid and appealing performers. Sad to say, Seagal is not doing the same caliber martial arts work as he once did (remember Above the Law? ouch!). But he’s is completely up to snuff in that aspect that, over the years, he has made all his own—the scowl. And here he does it at every possible opportunity, in slow motion and in fast-cut action scenes, during car chases and fight scenes, when he’s firing his very powerful gun and when he’s being yelled at by his very angry police captain. No doubt about it, Seagal is a King of Pain.
As ornery Detroit cop Orin Boyd (and who wouldn’t be ornery with a name like that?), Seagal has good reason to scowl. He’s one of those showboaters, who is so good at what he does (taking out entire battalions of bad guys with a single gun and a few swift kicks to crackable body parts) that in the midst of an event, everyone just backs out the way and lets him do it. Of course, while he may be saving the Vice President’s life, as he does in the introductory scene, Boyd is also creating havoc, which means that afterwards, some authority type (here, the sublime Bill Duke) has to chew him out for being a troublemaker who doesn’t know how to follow the rules. This time around, Boyd’s demoted to a “war zone” precinct, where, he soon learns, most of his fellow cops are wildly posturing macho pricks: their “hazing” process involves tasering newbies at full volume, a test that Boyd naturally passes brilliantly, earning him the respect of the well-muscled head cop, Strutt (Michael Jai White) and the enmity of a couple of standard-issue swaggerers, the tough-talking Montoni (David Vadim) and the former KKK member Useldinger (Matthew G. Taylor).
As his run-ins with these manifestly bad cops suggest, there’s serious trouble afoot, namely drug dealing, else why would Seagal—or rather, Boyd—have been assigned to this precinct? Luckily, even with his contrary “lone wolf” reputation preceding him, Boyd wins the trust of his precinct chief, Annette Mulcahy (Jill Hennessy, reprising her stern-but-vulnerable affect from Law & Order), a former Internal Affairs officer with a nose for corruption, or so she says. Boyd convinces her to condone his investigation: this decision is apparently reached via a series of hilariously unconvincing winks and flirtatious scowls, when he interrupts her dinner with a wimpy “let’s not talk about police-work” date at a fancy-pants restaurant. Put off for about a nanosecond, Mulcahy sends Wimpy Date off to the men’s room so she can hear what Boyd has to say, which isn’t much, but he sure blusters and poses well. With a flourish that’s strange even for Seagal, Boyd shows that he’s a man’s man in any situation, snarfing food from Wimpy Date’s plate. This is enough for Mulcahy, and she sends him forth with her blessing to do Good Work.
On this mission, Boyd is all business, with some time out for a couple of those Seagal-movie requisite scenes where he takes out crews of woefully under-prepared no-necks with attitude. Aided by his very nice new partner George (Isaiah Washington), Boyd digs up what looks like a humungo drug operation, under the auspices of the coolest of cool cats, Latrell Walker (DMX), and his yellow-Humvee-owning buddy T.K. (Anthony Andrews). As far as Boyd can figure, Latrell has some strong but unexplained connection to a young fellow in prison, Shaun (played by X’s fellow Ruff Ryder, Drag-On), and so much money it’s ridiculous. A young black man who can afford an $850,000 car and a closet full of incredible designer outfits? Obviously, he’s into something illegal.
As this minimal plot summary suggests, Exit Wounds is full of cliches that it displays proudly. It is what it is—a Steven Seagal formula flick dressed up so a hiphop-martial arts crowd might appreciate it, and even tolerate Seagal. If you’re not into that sort of violence—which is used here for dark comedy as well as producer Joel Silver’s typical testosterone-driven titillation—then it may be something of a grueling experience. But for all that, Exit Wounds offers a few unexpected change-ups. For one thing, it has an unusually integrated (black-white) cast. And for another, as the trailers give away, the enigmatic Latrell is an attractively unconventional hero. He’s seductive, sensitive, determined, and knows his way around the internet as well as Motown’s back alleys. Seagal may make a few more comeback films before he’s done. But Dark Man X has arrived.