Note: Ridiculous plot spoilers ahead.
I missed The Jeffersons to be here.
— Rad (Duane Martin), Hustle and Heat
Blowing up Meagan was one of the low points of my career, but I thought that worked pretty well.
— Director Craig Ross, Jr., commentary track, Hustle and Heat
Throughout his commentary track for Hustle and Heat, director Craig Ross calls it “Ride or Die.” Just why the title changed, who changed it, or how the change matters is never clear, but pondering the reasons may prove a useful distraction as you watch this film, recently sent to DVD by Columbia.
Ross is an amiable commentator, making his film seem almost coherent and his shoot sound like fun. To hear him tell it, the cast is an assembly of friends of co-producer, co-writer, and star Duane Martin, including the indefatigable Vivica A. Fox as his professional partner, munitions expert Lisa, and Gabrielle Union as “The Masked Woman.” Her one-minute role is quite irrelevant to anything that follows (and according to Ross, she had “only an hour or two to shoot,” so they used a body double (or really, a back-of-her-head double) in shots focused on the scene’s other character, super-slick private investigator Conrad McRae (Martin).
It’s good to know that Martin has friends who come through for him. As Ross recalls more than once, he appreciates that Martin likes to cast his friends in supporting roles, especially given that the budget for the film was apparently miniscule — they also used Martin’s car, his clothes, and locations he borrowed from friends (though Ross notes that in one apartment, “That artwork is by my mom”). “The fact that we could do it so cheaply sort of impressed Screen Gems, that’s why they acquired the project,” admits Ross. Martin himself appears in just about every scene in Hustle and Heat, playing detective, action hero, best friend, lover, kids’ and basketball coach. He also has jokes, which, again, Ross notes, the multi-threat talent inserted himself. (Ross: “Duane wrote this movie, he wrote all the jokes… he was a little nervous about the fight scenes.”) To wit, when Rad gets a cell phone call, he explains, apropos of nothing in particular, “That was the President: Puffy remixed the National Anthem.”
Aside from such hilarity, the film offers the admittedly charismatic Martin a chance to emote variously. The plot concerns the death of Rad’s best friend, Benjamin, a.k.a. Killer Ben, a.k.a. Benji (Jadakiss, of whom Ross says, rather sweetly, “This guy just memorized all his lines. I guess it was like a rap song to him, he just memorized it all, I was very impressed with that”). Because he’s a big deal rapper, Benji’s Suge-like contract holder, the head of New Freedom Records, B Free (Michael “Bear” Taliferro), looks immediately like a suspect. That is, until the cops call the death a “murder-suicide” (Ross explains, while Rad looks very sad over Benji’s body, “His assistant is also dead in the room, but we just never got to see him”).
Following the funeral (where Brian McKnight, another friend of Martin’s, sings “Amazing Grace”), Rad convinces a detective (Iona Morris, daughter of Greg Morris), to let him dig around in search of murder clues for 36 hours. This leads him on something of a scurry around L.A., hoping to avenge his friend. Complicating matters is the little known fact that Benji has recently Vegas-married the luscious and slightly shady Venus (Meagan Goode, whom Ross identifies as “definitely a star on the rise” and “beautiful woman,” not exactly newsflashes).
Though he’s warned early on by an anonymous phone call (“Watch your back, keep your nose out of grown folks’ business or your ass is gonna end up just like Benji’s”), Rad persists, encouraged by Venus’ appearance. Her interest is at least partly financial. Together they visit with Benji’s lawyer, the formidable David Rabinovitz (Faizon Love, who’s also got jokes, beginning with the phone call he’s taking as they enter: “I saw the tape. Look, they’re saying she’s 14. I saw you jack off. I can’t fucking help you”). Unsurprisingly, the lawyer provides no particular help, just another inconsequential scene.
One clue that Rad does follow up is Benji’s unknown writing partner, named Armageddon. It’s probably scandalous that Armageddon turns out to be a white college professor with expertise in black history, but because the film reveals nothing else about this character or his relationship with Benji, it’s hard to care who he is, or even how badly he rhymes. He demonstrates this last when he is commanded by a captor, “Rap, motherfucker!” — “I got bitches on my dick ’cause I rock the hits, drive the whips, stack the chips.” Honestly, the film just gets loopier by the minute.)
Rad’s nosing around leads to serial fight scenes (whether or not Martin was worried about including them): Rad “gets [his] ass kicked by Madame Wu Tang” (that is, a martial arts diva in the employ of B Free), and engages in a slow motion shootout with a couple of goons in ski masks. Ross calls the stylization a “Sergio Leone kind of thing.” He goes on to remark on the ridiculousness of the orchestrations of movie gunfights: “Now it’s always interesting to me that the good guy can’t shoot the bad guys that are five feet away, but somehow he’s able to shoot the bad guys that are 50 feet away. That’s just a moviemaking thing, I guess, to add drama. But for us, we couldn’t kill those guys yet, because we had to use them later.”
The film seems of two minds regarding the usual relation between masculinity and aggression. While its action is staged by way of exaggeration and feeble comedy, Hustle and Heat also wants to grant Rad a standard hero’s pose. Toward this end, it makes other guys look wussy, in particular in a bit where B Free’s large, round-bodied bodyguards take time off from guarding their prisoner (a real Venus, played by Stacey Dash, who has maybe two lines to speak), in order to massage one another with baby oil. Found out in mid-rub, they’re embarrassed, that is, rendered “impotent.”
Lisa sees this masculinity business in her own way. She certainly understands Rad’s need to play action hero; as he worries over what to do next, she encourages him: “You can make things right, Rad.” (“You can tell that they’re friends,” Ross says of Martin and Fox. “I think their chemistry is really good.) Lisa and Rad share an unknown history, obvious attraction, and the care of an Akida named Kaboom, and they’ll make their way toward something like romance by film’s end. That, and, Lisa’s got what Rad calls “more firepower than Waco,” in her garage.
Repeatedly, she asks Rad to “let” her go out on cases with him, but no, he believes she’s a girl and should stay home, conjuring weapons for him to use on the job. Her latest idea, “plutonium laced tampons,” inspire Rad’s scoffing, but she insists, “You’ll see, them tampons are gonna pay off.” Indeed, they do. For her last, best trick, Lisa blows up Venus.