Snipes (2001)


Erik (Sam Jones III) is the best at what he does. He throws up snipes, that is, he puts up promotional posters on building walls and other public, not-exactly authorized, surfaces. He’s smart about it: he works efficiently (minimal glue and time) and documents his work with a digital camera, so he can show it off on the net. His current gig, for the Hit Palace Recording Studio, doesn’t pay so well, but gives him access to promo discs and occasionally glimpse of his favorite stars, in person. So what if his dad thinks what he does is “littering”? And so what if he skips school more often than not, or mouths off to his solid citizen, post-office-working dad (Johnnie Hobbs Jr.)? As Erik puts it, he has “business to take care of.” That business is hip-hop.

Erik’s currently working with the street team for Prolifik (Nelly). His first single is number one in the country, and everyone’s hot for his upcoming album — only a few months late. Still, he’s looking to spend his advance, to live the ballers’ life. But this is making Hit Palace exec Bobby Starr (Dean Winters) antsy. When Prolifik (Clarence to his mama) saunters into the studio one afternoon, Bobby fumes a little himself, acting the tough guy as he explains the deal: “It’s time for you, Clarence, to step up and deliver.” Right on cue, Prolifik comes back, “I made this damn label, man!” before storming out of the office, looking a little too offended under the circumstances.

Most likely, you’ve seen something like this before. The headstrong star, the gangster-wannabe, the kid who will come to a deeper understanding of himself and the corrupt world around him. In fact, Snipes, the first feature by writer-producer-director by Rich Murray, distributed by his own RuffNation Films (sister company to RuffHouse Records), presumes your familiarity with its images and ideas. It’s laced through with references to other, gritty, noiry, urban-styley movies, from Chinatown and New Jack City, to Reservoir Dogs, The Firm, and Bamboozled. Erik isn’t quite old enough to get “involved” with the film’s mysterious female, his supervisor at the Hit Palace, Cheryl (Zoe Saldana), but that’s another lesson he’ll be learning.

His journey begins when he and his friend Malik (Mpho Koaho), an aspiring rapper, sneak into the studio one night to lay down some demo tracks. When they get inside, they find two dead bodies: horrified at the sight and rightly imagining that they’ll be blamed for something, they take off, and learn the next day that Prolifik’s master tapes have been stolen. As Malik has left his id back at the studio, the kids are pegged as culprits, and soon enough they’re running from various thugs from both Prolifik’s crew and Bobby’s crew — not to mention the man to whom Bobby answers, Johnnie Marandino (Frank Vincent), a.k.a. Stock Mafioso. You know they’re thugs (or want to be) because they talk mean, wear mean ink, and carry mean steel. Moreover, given everyone’s thuggish aspirations, they’re all as likely to shoot Erik as look at him.

Erik, unable to go to the cops (also as likely to shoot him as look at him) organizes his own crew, including Malik and a few rival street team members, including Bugsy (Carlo Alban) and Trix (Charli Baltimore, whose signature red hair certainly jumps off the screen in this mostly grim atmosphere). Together, they engineer a scheme that will allow them to find the kidnapped Cheryl (because you know she’ll be the girl in distress at some point in the film) and set in motion Bobby’s downfall, for once Bobby’s hooligans beat up Erik, it’s only a matter of time before they will pay up.

With “news” updates provided by MTV VJ Sway (a former radio DJ, playing one here), the film underlines a distinction between Erik’s personal plot and what appears to be the public plot (having to with Prolifik’s ostensible kidnapping). Delivering on the promise he showed in David Guyer’s notable first feature, Zig Zag, as well as his work on Smallville, Jones here gives a mature, understated performance. Erik makes Snipes work, to the extent that it does. Though he’s caught up in a common coming-of-age-in-the-streets movie situation, his responses are hardly gonzo heroic. Rather, he repeatedly makes wrong moves, before he figures out the “mind game” that drives the film’s relentlessly posturing tough guys.

All this means that Snipes is really less concerned with the music industry per se (or as it functions today), and more concerned with the movie industry, in the sense that it tries to haul some visual and narrative clichés into the present, to make them relevant. The fact that the film has been marketed as “the Nelly movie,” speaks to this distinction. Nelly’s role here is minimal — once Prolifik disappears during the film’s first few minutes, he’s pretty much gone, as the focus turns to Erik playing detective, trying to solve the mystery of Prolifik. (That said, Prolifik’s eventual return is wild — he turns all Terminator.) Nelly is magnetic, fills up the screen, and is clearly willing to inhabit a character severely lacking the artist’s celebrated “nice-guy” affect.

On one hand, the film’s representation of hip-hop, not as a personality or icon, but as a culture and set of values, is framed by its representation of the corrupt business. On the other, Erik does embody hip-hop, dedicated to “doing the right thing,” especially when he has to make up hat right thing on the spot.