Wanna be ballers? Shot-callers?
Brawlers, who be dippin’ in the Benz wit the spoilers?
On the low from the Jake in the Taurus,
Tryin’ to get my hands on some Grants like Horace.
— Puff Daddy, “It’s All About the Benjamins (Remix)”
The genius of hip-hop — the brilliant wordplay, the rhythmic complexities, the incisive social and political analysis, the humor — rarely translates to film form. That’s not to say that there aren’t ambitious and smart hip-hop movies, only that most movies, especially most movies that get distribution, take an easy route, stereotyping hip-hop attitudes and characters into stereotypical terms — bling-bling, banging, pimping, ass-shaking. You know, tired. All About the Benjamins includes these popular elements — producer-writer-star Ice Cube surely understands the business he’s in — but it mostly does so with a sense of self-consciousness and wit, so you don’t have to feel mad about it. On top of that, it features some of hip-hop’s genius, in its mostly clever script, stylish visuals, class critique, and emphasis on charismatic performances to carry the day.
Directed by Kevin Bray (who has previously directed videos for J. Lo, the Fugees, and ‘NSync), the movie has an obvious and amusing visual aggressiveness. It begins with a scene that looks a little like it might be Friday In the Trailer Park. Ice Cube is playing a Miami-based bounty hunter named Bucum (most often pronounced “Book ’em,” as in “Dan-o”) Jackson. He makes his way through an evergladesy back lot, tracking a lowdown dirty-dog (Anthony Michael Hall), instantly identifiable as such when the camera pans to show the Confederate flag in his window and the Bugs Bunny-and-Sambo cartoon on his tv, that makes him laugh uproariously. Bucum comes in through the back, only to be ambushed by dirty-dog’s scary professional-wrestler-looking girlfriend, wearing daisy dukes and carrying a shotgun. During the ensuing tussle, Bucum crashes through the confederate flag window, punches out scary wrestler girlfriend, and beats down dirty-dog. The scene ends when Bucum tasers dirty-dog’s nuts. And for anyone who’s been wondering what Anthony Michael Hall has been up to, well, now you know.
All this action-packedness — enhanced by mobile camerawork and flashy fast-cuts — has nothing to do with anything except that it shows off Bucum’s determination and skills — and he lots of both. So here’s the thing: Bucum wants out of this rinky-dink business where he’s tracking bail jumpers, in order to open his own Private Detective’s Agency. He’s not aiming high, exactly, but he’s aiming more or less seriously. And then he gets tangled up with small time bail-jumper Reggie Wright (Mike Epps, Cube’s partner in Next Friday and the upcoming Friday After Next). And well, plans get messed up.
While Bucum is chasing Reggie, they inadvertently run into a bizarre and bloody diamond heist, though they don’t know that’s what it is (you, on the other hand, get to see the murders. The mismatched perpetrators — Ursula (Carmen Chaplin) and Ramose (Roger Guenveur Smith) — are unaware as they flee the scene that they have a stowaway, namely, Reggie, who is in turn thinking he’s cleverly eluding Bucum. Once he’s discovered in the back of the van, Reggie panics and drops his wallet, which just happens to have a winning (to the tune of $60 million) lottery ticket in it. This series of events gives the partners-to-be sort-of parallel reasons to be involved in tracking down the thieves: Reggie wants his wallet and Bucum (who doesn’t believe the lottery ticket story) wants the collar, which, he says naively, will give him the big-ups publicity he needs to start up his detective agency.
In fact, the lottery ticket story is true, and it’s a ticket whose numbers Reggie has been playing for years, for his hot-mama girlfriend Gina (Eva Mendes). Aside from her role in picking the numbers, Gina’s primary function is a matter of formula: in a buddy film, at least one of buddies must involved in a long-term, straight-asserting relationship; otherwise, all that close-contact activity can be nervous-making. And true to form, Benjamins includes a briefly running gag about Reggie biting Bucum’s nipple during a fight in a parking lot — hardy har — while Gina stands to the side, telling Reggie to stop because, as she says repeatedly, “Baby, you can’t fight!”
Gina is slightly more energetic and slightly less incidental than most girls in buddy films (think, maybe: Tea Leoni in Bad Boys). But even if she gets her own little pieces of action with Bucum’s sidekick Pam (Valarie Rae Miller, playing her Dark Angel character, Original Cindy, only straight), it’s safe to say that the buddy formula remains intact in this film.
To enable this plot to roll out, the diamond thieves, so inept and so reprehensible, provide numerous occasions for conflict and physical displays. And, as if it matters, they have their own troubles: angry at their botched job, their boss, a Eurotrashy villain called Williamson (Tommy Flanagan), exacts brutal Eurotrashy vengeance, clobbering Ursula in the face and shooting Ramose, point blank, in the wrist. This bit of sadism leads to more, at Ramose’s expense: when Bucum and Reggie catch him doing something or other, they haul him into the bathroom, handcuff him to the shower rod, and take turns torturing him by twisting his metal-brace screws into the flesh of his arm. There’s something perverse about this particular brand of comedy and boy-bonding (Gina remains in the other room, making faces as she hears Bad Guy’s wails of agony), but it’s plain that Bucum and Reggie share a certain sensibility, much as they deny their affiliation.
The more they fight with one another, the more they seem destined to be together. And the film, erratic and badly plotted as it is, relies heavily on the considerable chemistry between Epps and Cube: sometimes it’s just fun to watch them entertain one another, which they clearly do. Just so, the film is structured like a romance, complete with a series of breakups and make-ups (and the usual eroto-phobic jokes along the way: when Bucum tells Reggie to retrieve his keys, “Dig in my pockets,” Reggie makes all kinds of noise about it; and when Bucum tells Reggie to shoot at someone, he answers, “Who you think I am, Mel Gibson!?”). All the while, the partners work toward what is ultimately the same end, namely, to make enough benjamins to move on up. Reggie is most obviously in need of cash money (the small apartment he shares with Gina is filled with candles and shrines that she uses to pray for the lottery to come through). His neighborhood is also rough, embodied by a rough-tough corner kid (Lil Bow Wow, in his acting “debut”), who is apparently willing to sell information to everyone, including 5-0.
At the same time, Bucum has his own hard background and resulting impulse to get over (the manifestly odious Williamson is a yacht dealer when he’s not stealing diamonds). Bucum’s previous job — cleaning up at the dog track — most obviously serves to establish a spectacular, multi-tiered setting for one of several shootouts, more importantly, it establishes his motivation: he sees what the rich folks have and wants a piece. You glimpse Bucum’s ambition (and his peculiar tastes) in his fondness for expensive tropical fish; since they’re in Miami, most every interior has an aquarium in it, all of which must be shot up or run down, preferably in slow motion; at one point, someone actually shoots a bazooka at a fish truck, so that dead fish fly through the air, landing whump-whump-whump all over Bucum’s “raggedy-ass” Impala.
Cleverly, it’s in these details — the car, the fish, the yachts — that the film actually makes its class analysis most evident. While by the end, it’s winding down abruptly, like it’s run out of ideas, it has also made its points. Underlining the silliness of the bling-bling, All About the Benjamins also shows its importance in the day-to-day world. Class is a function of performance and appearance as much as it is a function of material wealth — if you look the part, the old school folks get nervous, but they have to move over. And this is the hip-hop bling-bling game, forcing the old school folks to move over, to recognize that all benjamins come with costs as well as rewards.