DVD Review - Underground Kings (2016)

Originally conceived as a web series in 2014, writer Skye Dennis (Murder City Angels) has made a crime drama that is very much akin to HBO's The Wire. It's not surprising considering a few of the actors here come from that HBO program about drug dealers, corruption and the cops who are caught in the middle. Instead of Baltimore though, Dennis has set down in Philadelphia.

Directed by Lionel Anthony Cook, this feature is authentically shot in the City of Brotherly Love and pulls actual Philly natives to fill out the characters. The whole thing kicks off with a furious, foot chase, which is a little disconcerting. It sets up a tone that isn't necessarily continued for the rest of the story. For the most part, this movie is a quiet but intense drama. There's only one other brief moment of violence but not much of it is seen. The violence is instead implied.

Kevin Savage is one of two standouts here. Savage stars as Noah Carter, an undercover detective whose partner gets killed when he gets in too deep on a case investigating one of Philadelphia's drug gangs and its crime boss. Noah has to juggle his home-life, which consists of a wife and child. His wife, Marcy, particularly doesn't want him putting himself in danger, and there's tension there. Eventually, Noah leaves the police force to work at his parents' restaurant, but outside influences threaten to pull him back into the mix.

Christopher Mann (center) in 'Underground Kings'
Christopher Mann (The Wire and House of Cards) is the other standout. He co-stars as Walter Davis aka "Smooth." He's the aforementioned, crime boss. His nickname is very appropriate. If you've seen Michael Jackson's video for "Smooth Criminal," this guy looks like he could have been plucked from right out of that. He's dressed in what could be a zoot suit. He wears a fedora and smokes cigars. He seems very classy and very well put-together, yet he does have an evil streak. He owns a nightclub where there's a lot of frivolity and fun but in the shadows there are a lot of shady dealings.

Smooth does have a girlfriend. She's a soul singer named Faith, played by real-life, soul singer Jaguar Wright. She has very much a Bessie Smith vibe about her. Unfortunately, Smooth abuses her and even cheats on her. Other than that, most of Smooth's interactions are with fellow, underground mafioso, a boxing gym owner and Latino gentleman of equal measure, simply named the "Cuban," played by Brian Anthony Wilson (The Wire and Creed).

Brian Anthony Wilson in 'Underground Kings'
This feature feels less like a complete story and a very episodic string of events. Cook shows us vignettes of boxers in the boxing gym and rappers on the street. Cook shows men in the barbershop talking to each other and even women at a bar chatting things up. He gives us glimpses into black culture and a slight reflection of life in Philly. That episodic string, however, has a lot of dangling bits.

In the wake of TV shows like Power on Starz, Empire on FOX and even Luke Cage on Netflix, we've seen plenty of examples of black culture through the lens of a kingpin who owns a club where booze, drugs and music swirl around characters. This feature is in that same vein, but it feels like only half or even a third of what a full season of Power, Empire or Luke Cage would be. The narrative isn't helped with jumps back-and-forth in time, but Dennis wants the death of Noah's partner to be an emotional through-line that never fully hits.

Dennis introduces a bunch of characters who get brief scenes and then disappear. Dennis was perhaps setting up future plot-lines that were then cut off. It's a shame, but we do get to enjoy the appearances of so many of Philly's talent who shine if only too shortly, including actor Robert X. Golphin, reality TV star Gervase Peterson and filmmaker Atif Lanier who is talented in his own right but a huge, muscular guy who gives the lead actor a run for his money.

Kevin Savage in 'Underground Kings'
Speaking of which, the lead actor Kevin Savage is almost too pretty. He's smokin' hot! He's somewhere between Emmy-winner Sean Blakemore (General Hospital) and musician-model Christian Keyes who got his start in acting by working on Tyler Perry plays. Savage is somewhere between those guys. He's sexy of course but he does quiet intensity just as well as any black actor, which works as either tough cop or struggling family man. Savage leans more toward the side of the Blakemore-style of acting. He doesn't exude the kind of charm and humor of someone like Keyes though.

It's not his fault. Dennis' script here doesn't possess a lot of humor. In that, this is less close to Empire or Luke Cage. It pushes it more toward Power or again The Wire. Dennis seems like he certainly wants that kind of wide scope. The direction of Cook, however, keeps the whole thing feeling more intimate. The whole feature seems like a close-up rather than a kind of panorama.

Not Rated but contains some violence, sexual situations and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 12 mins.

Available on DVD via Breaking Glass Pictures and VOD via Amazon Video, iTunes and Vudu.


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