Bad Cops, Worse Cops
For an unabashedly hyperbolic black “gangsta” comedy, 3 Strikes includes far too many moments that ring true. Taking on the infamous California “three strikes” law, which gives a 25-years-to-life sentence for all third-time felony convictions, the film opens as Rob Douglas (Brian Hooks) is released from jail. He’s just served out his second sentence for a petty crime, so he can get life if convicted again. The trouble begins right away. Rob’s friend J.J. (De’Aundre Bonds) picks him up from jail in a stolen car. When the cops stop them on a highway, J.J. starts shooting at them and is captured. Rob flees the scene and spends the rest of the film trying to clear his name and evade a full-scale police manhunt, which includes tv coverage, SWAT teams, and a whole fleet of LAPD cars. Unfortunately, after the recent acquittal of the four white New York police officers who killed unarmed West African immigrant Amadou Diallo a verdict which elicited public outrage and protests even the most exaggerated moments of 3 Strikes don’t seem so far-fetched.
Of course, the film and its soundtrack are designed to make money, like the many successful black gangsta comedies and hard-core films which came before it. 3 Strikes capitalizes on the success of Friday, a 1995 low-budget hiphop comedy, and comes on the heels of the sequel, Next Friday, both starring and produced by veteran rapper, producer, actor and director Ice Cube. It also follows previous releases of hard-core low-budget films such as I Got the Hook Up (1998) and Foolish (1999), both starring, written and executive produced by rap artist-No Limit CEO Master P. 3 Strikes‘s soundtrack is likely to sell well it features well-known gangsta rappers Snoop Dogg, Silkk the Shocker, C-Murder, E-40, and Sauce Money. Its director and writer, D.J. Pooh, nee Mark Jordan, is a rap music producer who started his own Da Bomb Records label, co-wrote Friday with Ice Cube, and co-produced some of Cube’s records. 3 Strikes aims at, and will reach the black urban audiences prepared by Cube, Master P, and other gangsta artists.
Some of the film’s simpler jokes seem to aim at these most likely audiences. Set in South Central L.A., 3 Strikes displays all the usual trappings of a gangsta production, including obscenities, shapely women, sex, weed, and guns. While on the run, Rob who is innocent but also dumb and horny goes through a series of predictable encounters with flat, stereotypical characters. He hides from the police under a big sombrero at a neighborhood Latino party. He catches a cab with a pot-smoking Jamaican taxi driver. His girlfriend Juanita (N’Bushe Wright) spies on him and steals his money. His uncle drinks beer and farts. And he’s in this jam in the first place because his friend Tone (Faizon Love) was unable to pick him up at prison, because he was busy having sex with a voluptuous female stranger.
At the same time, some central themes of this gangsta tradition jive well with the movie’s specific target, the three strikes law. From its inception, gangsta rap, in its best moments, has critiqued U.S. law enforcement and the general social order, where men with darker skin color are presumed guilty, get longer sentences than whites for the same crime, and expect to be stopped and shot at by the police for no reason.
In 3 Strikes, we, the audience, see or fear all of the above. The story puts the innocent and likeable Rob in the center of the action and, giving viewers little chance to recognize themselves in any supporting characters, asks them to identify with him as a victim of racial profiling. When Rob gets home, his conversation with his parents (Starletta DuPois and George Wallace) reveals that he didn’t spend half an hour at home after his first prison term before the police blew up the front door, stormed in, and arrested him again. Later it turns out that he might have taken a fall for another guy when convicted that second time. And now, even though the police tape clearly shows that he did not participate in the shootout with J.J., he is being hunted as a dangerous criminal.
In describing Rob’s plight, the film avoids the simple black-white opposition Rob has as much to fear from black characters as from white ones. One of the officers charged with arresting Rob, Jenkins (David Alan Grier), is black, corrupt, and good friends with his likewise corrupt white partner. Both of them have no scruples using their cop badges to take advantage of Rob and other black citizens. When, surrounded by the LAPD in one of his neighborhood’s backyards, Rob comes out from behind a car unarmed and with raised hands. In response, Jenkins screams, “Look out! He’s got a gun!”, and a hail of bullets ensues. On top of all this, Rob’s homies are after him for leaving his friend in a gunfight with the police. The point is clear: he is safe nowhere, least of all in his own neighborhood.
The visual elements of this dismal order of things will be familiar to U.S. TV viewers of all races and ages. The O.J. Simpson trial and America’s Most Wanted come to mind when television cameras transmit from helicopters as Rob evades police cars and SWAT teams, first on foot, then in his friend Mike’s (E-40) green SUV. To demonstrate his innocence, Rob hires a suave black attorney who, in turn, contacts Channel 5 News. In Rob’s recurring nightmare, the L.A. Chief of Police, speaking from a tv screen, promises to put him back in jail for life even for a crime as petty as stealing a slice of pizza. At times, 3 Strikes presents a clever caricature of a U.S. police state, the lewd jokes and facile stereotypes notwithstanding.
Unfortunately, precisely because of these critical elements, 3 Strikes is unlikely to break new ground as yet another attempt by rap musicians and producers to reach white Multiplex audiences with a low-budget comedy. MGM is clearly aiming at crossover audiences, advertising the film as a new comedy from co-writer of Friday and the producers of Dumb and Dumber. But I think, given this film’s explicit and discomforting attack on the U.S. judicial system however familiar it may be for many viewers MGM will have to wait for another gangsta comedy to take the Dumb and Dumber constituency by storm.